Flatworms

Fiction
Inés G. Labarta


Photo Credit: Max Jackson (CC-by-nc-nd)

When I learned that Miss Barale had been a piano virtuoso I was ecstatic. Back in the 1940s, she moved to England from Italy thanks to her musical genius. A bit like I’d done. Well, except she was escaping fascism and I was just running away from Spain’s economic cataclysm and Dad’s dream of me becoming a famous pianist.

Dad was a bit of a melomaniac. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor, he used to say, classical music blasting out from his stereo. Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky. The Russians were always his favourite. Once, he’d found hundreds of classical music CDs in black bin bags nearby a radio station. Tossed away after being digitalised, I guess. Dad had to get some custom-designed shelves to store them at home, and even after that, there were CDs on the counters, under the beds, stacked next to the laundry basket in the toilet.

He wasn’t one of those parents who force their children to play piano eight hours a day. I chose it. My mother had a small Casio keyboard that she left behind when she moved out. She used to practice Bach Minuets on it. I hate Bach. But I was fascinated by the machine, so I kept playing it on my own. Dad got me classes—first a small music academy around the corner, then a private school, then the Madrid Royal Conservatory. I developed tendonitis upon tendonitis and still couldn’t make my hands wider or stronger to play the pieces I knew would impress juries the most at piano competitions. I was good, very good, but I wasn’t brilliant.

I found a black-and-white recording of a young Miss Barale playing Petrushka, Stravinsky’s most diabolical piano composition, at the Royal Albert Hall. Long curly hair and large hands taming that beast of a piece. Her performance gave me shivers, as if I was seeing her tickle a Siberian tiger under the chin to make it purr.

I began to think that if I could master that piano piece too, maybe there was a chance of me becoming a virtuoso after all.

*

I chose to work as a domestic in the care home because I knew it would feel familiar. Dad was already old when he had me, and I’d been raised by him and his friends. Soft skin like tracing paper. Flesh that folds and wrinkles. The pearly colour of fake teeth. Bodies that grow small and angular.

Dad wouldn’t have approved of this job, though. He had spent most of his retirement savings to take me around Spain for piano competitions and concerts. But, after I went to study History and Musicology in England, all our savings were gone. I was lucky I could live with my friend Lily, a mature student I’d met at university and who let me stay with her rent-free. And with Dad not being able to get out of the house anymore, he needed someone to help out. He couldn’t afford a carer on his pension, so I sent him money. When he asked, I told him I earned it teaching piano lessons via Zoom and promised I’d keep attending orchestra auditions as soon as they reopened.

*

‘How is your dad doing, María?’ Lily asked.

‘He’s good,’ I said. ‘Takes his clove of black garlic every morning, natural antibiotic he calls it, plus a bit of fennel to avoid bad breath. He says that’s how he’s going to live until he’s one hundred.’

‘Worth a try, am I right?’ Lily chuckled. ‘And how’s work?’

‘Not so bad,’ I said. ‘When I clean the corridors I always see residents pacing up and down, all day long. They call them Wanderers. In the evening, as they get tired, they start leaning forwards more and more… We’ve to watch out for incontinence pads on the floor, I think they slide down the bottom of their trousers’ legs… The other domestics think it’s funny, but you know, I couldn’t stand being always indoors. I’d end up just like them.’

‘Are they not allowed out?’

‘Not since lockdown.’

Truth is, I felt a bit guilty about my job. Lily turned eighty-three in November. Like Dad, she was in a high-risk category, so she’d also decided to not go outside until things cleared up. We’d agreed we shouldn’t physically see each other and we kept ourselves to different areas of the house. And what we shared—the kitchen, her piano—we disinfected constantly.

‘I’m cooking tonight,’ I said. ‘Shall I bring a dish to your door when it’s done?’

‘That’d be nice.’

Lily had forgotten to eat lunch again.

‘At least you left your room…’ The piano was in the hall, set against the stairs, and when I came in I saw she’d been fidgeting with my scores. ‘You’re trying to learn Petrushka too?’

‘Sounds interesting when you practice.’

‘It’s driving me mad.’

‘You only need time. I have lots. Maybe I can play it before you,’ she joked.

‘Sure,’ I laughed. Lily had also grown up playing but had dropped it when her family pressured her to study medicine, like her father. She’d ended up as a biologist in a lab in Oxford, having only gone back to practising piano after retirement. I very much doubted she could ever play Petrushka. Then again, I wasn’t doing brilliantly either.

*

I’d met Miss Barale through my job in the care home. She lived on the fourth unit, which I was scheduled to clean every time there was a shortage of staff. That’s where the patients with less mobility stayed. They were normally in the last states of dementia or had suffered a stroke. Miss Barale was short, with a curled skeletal body, bulging cloudy eyes and wispy hair like antennae. I’d heard one of the other domestics say she looked like a crustacean. I thought that was mean, and I told her.

I wasn’t supposed to talk to the residents or interact with them in any manner—I wasn’t a carer—but I liked to greet them and chat when no one was around. I made a few friends that way. Like Mr Jenkins, who often forgot he couldn’t walk and tried to stand up out of his wheelchair. He loved to flirt and always dressed smart and colourfully: yellow-knitted vests, black-and-white oxford shoes. Or Mrs Orwell, who had been in the WAAF during the war and spent hours watching the bird feeder by her window. She taught me how to distinguish between different kinds of finches. And Miss Barale, of course. The rest of the staff referred to her as The Screamer. Whenever you entered the room she’d start mumbling to herself (she may have been blind and immobile, but her hearing was acute) and when you got near her she screamed her lungs out. The carers thought she was just babbling but after a few days, I was pretty sure she was speaking Italian.

‘Chi sta venendo, chi è là, shh, shh, vai vai, non mi toccare, vai…’

I memorised her words and improvised different ways of spelling them on an online translator. That’s how I understood that she didn’t know where she was or who we were. I used the same online translator to teach myself a couple of sentences to communicate with her.

‘Buongiorno signora, si trova in una casa di cura, mi chiamo María e mi prenderò cura di lei. Va tutto bene.’

Despite my atrocious accent, it worked. Sometimes Miss Barale would mumble back to me, still a bit nervous. I couldn’t understand most of it but I kept repeating ‘Va tutto bene, tutto bene’ like a lullaby, and she let me go around the room.

*

No matter what, it was my job to clean the basement every afternoon. I was the new one, and none of the other domestics would take it. A room with fluorescent lights reflecting on the white walls that seemed to be out of proportion with the rest of the floors. Too vast and open. As if the space inside the care home had expanded underground, defying all logic. In reality, this basement also belonged to the building next door: a research centre for neurological diseases.

The basement was noiseless, apart from the humming of the freezers and the cold storage unit that you stopped hearing after ten minutes or so. I took advantage of being alone and played music on my headphones—I’d already learned to hide my phone in my uniform. I downloaded different piano versions of Petrushka and I listened to them again and again, memorising the polyrhythms, the glissandos, the tremolos…

It was there I started hearing it again. The banging. At first, I thought it was something wrong with my headphones, or that the music files were corrupted. But when I took them out, it was clearer than ever.

Like a thousand rock-cold hands banging on invisible doors.

*

The corridors in Lily’s house were high and narrow. Darkness gathered like clouds around me. I switched on the light by the stairs before I sat on the cold tiled floor with my back against the door. I missed Lily’s smell. The warmth of her wrinkled hands. Her ocean-vast blue eyes.

‘They keep brains in these fridges in the basement,’ I told her. ‘It’s for some Alzheimer’s research they do… I needed special training to clean the dissecting rooms.’

‘In the care home?’

‘Yes. They cut the dead residents’ skulls with a large serrated knife, get the brain out, then put a handkerchief around the head so the family doesn’t notice when they bury them…’

‘Have you seen that?’

‘No, I only clean afterwards. But they told me. Would you donate your organs to science?’

‘Well.’ On the other side of the door, Lily took her time before answering. I pictured her sitting on the green armchair she had in her bedroom, dragged to the door to talk more comfortably. We hadn’t seen each other for months. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘I wouldn’t mind donating mine. I mean, once I die, I don’t care what they do with my body. It’s only a carcass.’

‘I don’t like the idea of someone touching, cutting, looking inside,’ Lily said.

‘But you used human bodies when you were at university, to learn and stuff?’

‘I did. I messed up some of my dissections. It’s not always respectful.’

‘But at that point, the human is all gone. It’s just meat.’

‘Maybe. But when I die, I don’t want anyone tossing my organs around.’

*

Glorianne was the most experienced domestic in our team and, as our self-appointed boss, she made sure to keep an eye on me during my first week.

‘Hey, María. Want to sit outside for tea?’ She had crunchy coiled hair and black-rimmed glasses. I’d seen the other domestics took turns to bring her strong black coffee, four sugars, before the start of every shift.

‘Face masks and aprons are running out, huh?’ Glorianne took out her BLT sandwich carefully packed in two napkins and foil.

‘Yeah. I’ve noticed.’ My lunch consisted of a box filled with mashed potato soaked in cheap olive oil. I was saving every penny to send to Dad.

‘It doesn’t surprise me,’ she continued. ‘Aaron, my brother, he’s a nurse at the Infirmary. He told me that someone stole three thousand face masks over there.’

‘From the hospital?’

‘Right before lockdown. Someone smart, I guess. Bet they made a lot of money selling them.’

After her sandwich, Glorianne rolled a cigarette.

‘You Italian?’ She asked me.

‘Spanish.’

‘They have it bad in Spain now, don’t they? I’m from Malta. It’s easier to control things there. Small islands, you know? Why are you here anyways?’

‘No jobs back home. I’m a pianist.’

‘Well done you,’ Glorianne said and, for the first time, she smiled at me. ‘Do you know we have a bit of a celebrity pianist here? Miss Barale. The Screamer. I know she doesn’t look like it but, back in her day, she toured all over the country. Stuck here for twenty years, though. Good that she has no memory now and can’t miss it.’

*

‘Today at work there was a bit of drama,’ I said to Lily, gulping down my soup. We both ate and chatted on our side of the door.

‘What was it?’

‘We don’t have face masks or aprons anymore. Gone. I think Glorianne thought I may have taken them.’

‘Why you?’

‘Because I’m broke, and I have Dad back home. But it’s all right. We chatted, cleared things up. We’re both Mediterranean. She told me as long as I’m not Italian, I’m OK. She hates Italians. Mafiosi, she called them.’

‘This Glorianne sounds quite the…’

‘No, she’s nice. But today everyone was complaining and then Mrs Hampson, the director, went out and bought us tons of these paint face masks… Glorianne says they’re not great, really, you need the proper ones to be protected… ah, and Mrs Hampson bought bin bags too. She told us to cut a hole in the bottom, for the head, and to use them as aprons.’

‘When will you get the new equipment?’

‘Don’t know. It’s all going to the NHS at the moment, that’s what Glorianne says.’

I didn’t tell her about the banging I kept hearing day after day. Or what my coworkers whispered in the staff room. They didn’t feel safe. So many were getting ill, and not only the residents. The cleaning team had always been understaffed but now things were much worse. And the personal carers kept quitting. One of them was in the hospital, struggling. Who knew if she was going to come out of it.

I took my temperature every night when I went home from work and started obsessing with the glands in my throat—were they swollen? Painful? To keep calm, I focused on Dad’s motto: life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor.

*

The cold storage unit they had in the cellar to keep the residents who passed away got full. They received another one, three or four times larger. They had to put it in the backyard. It was white on the outside and looked like one of those shipping containers that are repurposed into offices, or classrooms. But windowless. It was spacious, so it could take corpses from the area when the funeral homes started having waiting lists.

Every day, when I went to work, the first thing I did was to see if Miss Barale was still in her bed on the fourth unit. I made myself invisible to the other residents—I had received two warnings for cleaning too slowly, a third one meant a disciplinary—but she was the exception.

In my broken Italian, I complained to her about a burning pain that started in the joint of my thumb and went all the way up to the elbow. Petrushka was a meat grinder and I was stupid enough to put my hands in it every single day, for hours. I envied Miss Barale’s hands. Even when eaten by her arthritis—curled rigid fingers—they were still sizeable and wide. I’d read somewhere that Russian composers wrote the most difficult piano pieces because Russians have larger hands than the average European. That was some bullshit, though. I’d seen a video of a Russian virtuoso playing Petrushka. This guy was younger than me, but had already toured the world to perform in all the main music venues: La Scala, Viena Musikverein, Sidney Opera House, you name it. Yet, watching him play Petrushka was painful. He frowned, clenched his jaw and ground his teeth as if he was wrestling to lift an impossible weight. Fat drops of sweat hung from his hair and fell steadily on the keyboard. When he finished the three movements and stood up to salute the audience, his tuxedo looked wrinkly and wet, as if he’d been sleeping rough for weeks.

In the black-and-white videos, Miss Barale had the stern look of a Roman statue. Her hands fluttered across the keyboard like birds.

One day, I put my headphones in her ears. I was hoping she’d tell me her secret. Petrushka wasn’t about hand anatomy or physical strength. This piece was a fiendish mental labyrinth with only one way out.

She became alert when the first chords broke the silence. This was her own recording from 1964. From there, her cloudy eyes remained stuck on the wall. She didn’t utter a word, not even her usual mumbling. Her fingers started shaking. One could have mistaken that slight movement as a tic.

I recognised the sequence.

*

‘I’ll never finish learning this damn piece,’ I complained to Lily. ‘Stravinsky composed it for someone with sixteen fingers. I can’t move them fast enough. It’s like Olympic gymnastics for my hands.’

‘Maybe it’s all that thinking you’re doing. People assume brains keep all the memories,’ she started tapping at her side of the door, ‘but they’re stored all over the body.’

Her tapping was reproducing Chez Pétrouchka, the piece’s second movement.

‘When I was working in the labs, down in Oxford, we did quite a few experiments on cellular memory. We wanted to prove it,’ Lily said.

‘Hasn’t it been proved already?’

‘No. People still call it a pseudoscience. But we got somewhere. We started with flatworms. We trained them to associate light and open spaces with food. That’s not your normal kind of behaviour in flatworms. When they were good at that, we chopped them and fed them to other flatworms. Those learned the tricks much faster.’

‘Because they kind of ingested their memories?’

‘We went a step further. We tried with rats.’

‘Mammals…’

‘Exactly. We used mazes with them. Then we fed them to other rats and…’

‘Did it work?’

‘It did. We had two different groups. One where rats had fed on their relatives, another where they only got the normal diet. The first learned much faster. But see, that’s not that different from what we used to do.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Ritual cannibalism was something that happened in prehistoric times. You know, people believed that eating organs from their deceased, like the brain and the heart, would pass on some… characteristics. Skills. Inclinations.’

*

‘Can you hear that?’ I asked Glorianne.

We were on our ten-minute break in the staff area. The room was windowless and felt more like a cupboard: lockers stacked on top of each other against the wall, mountains of coats hanging from the hooks, street shoes all over the floor. That day, there were no other domestics around the sticky table, fighting for the chairs that weren’t broken.

‘Hear now? It’s happening again.’

‘What?’ she said.

‘The banging. It’s always going on… in the unit below… Where is everyone, by the way?’

‘I can’t hear anything.’ Glorianne took the coffee I’d brought her. ‘Have you put four sugars in this? It’s so bitter.’

‘But it’s always there,’ I insisted. ‘Can you not hear it?’

‘Come on now, don’t be like the others. Saying that they’ve heard Mrs Pryce strolling down the corridor with her walker even though she died three years ago. Ghosts?’ she scoffed. ‘Nonsense. You die, you go to Heaven, or down there if that’s what you deserve. We don’t linger around. By the way, are you free this Sunday coming? We have another one down on sick leave.’

‘Yes, that’s fine,’ I said.

‘I just don’t get it. Who can afford to be on sick leave for two weeks? If I have to come to work with a temperature, I will. Won’t be the first time.’

‘Wait… there it is again… hear the banging now?’

‘I mean, is Mrs Hampson going to pay my food bills? Or my rent? I have three children to take care of all on my own, so don’t have time to play Mother Teresa. And you, come on, let’s go to work. Have to clean six units now between us.’

I’d also thought the banging was in my head. Tiredness, maybe. I was doing extra shifts almost every day. For a moment, I even feared it was some sort of defect or illness in my ears. But I only heard it when I was in the care home. It never followed me outside.

I decided to check for myself. The next time I caught it—wheeling my trolley down the fourth unit—I stopped and closed my eyes. It was coming from below. I left the trolley on the corner and followed the noise.

Bang, bang, bang.

Down on the second level, the corridor lights switched on as I went in. Squeaky floor, baby blue walls, white doors. Nothing else.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I felt lucky to be alone in the corridors—no chance of being spotted and getting another warning—but then, I realised, something was wrong. No Wanderers pacing up and down. The day room was also empty. Naked tables, empty chairs. Dust snowing on the unoccupied sofas.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

The sound came from behind the locked doors.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I put my ear against one of them—the gesture felt familiar, I almost expected Lily to talk from the other side.

Someone slapped against it.

The bang reverberated on my skull.

I jumped back and ran away towards the stairs. I tripped and rolled down. I sat on the landing, dizzy. The only sound I could hear now was the pounding in my head.

*

Like in the old times, I was putting five, six hours on the piano per day. Right after work, I’d go straight to it. I didn’t even bother with food. The keys were teeth, and I was their meal. I didn’t need the scores anymore. It’s not that I had them in my head and could visualise them at will. It was all in my fingers. They remembered. My hands hovered over the keys, assuming their position. I released them. As the music started, my mind went blank. It was like floating inside warm, golden light. A space where thoughts couldn’t form. My cells disintegrated. The melody went on and on and on. And on, and on, and on…

It struck me, right there. What the banging was.

*

Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. That’s what Dad used to say. A symphony orchestra has at least one hundred instruments organised by families—string, woodwind, brass and percussion—all with their own internal hierarchies. It’s not easy to hold the baton to impose harmony on them all.

I tried to make things right.

As soon as I arrived to work the next day I looked for Glorianne. I wanted to tell her about how I was sure they had the residents locked in their rooms on the first and second units and wouldn’t let them out. Who was feeding them? Who was helping them wash, or put their clothes on? Why hadn’t we been told?

I checked the staff room and all over our unit and the rest of the building, but I couldn’t find her. Maybe she’d also gotten ill. I worried. It had to be very bad if she hadn’t shown up for work.

I spent the rest of the day shivering while scrubbing the floors in the basement. Wondering how one could play a piano piece that emulated the effect of dozens of instruments with only ten fingers.

*

I thought about going to the press. To tell them that we didn’t have personal carers anymore and that most of the domestics were on sick leave. And the banging. But when I tried to make sense of what had happened—give the events a chronology, cause and effect, I froze.

Even my first day at the care home is blurry.

The only clear image I have is from the exterior of the building. A four-floor concrete monstrosity with rows and rows of small windows. Empty sockets facing the bleak landscape of the bay.

Inside, I only remember pushing my cleaning trolley down the corridors. The clicking of the bleach tablets inside the plastic buckets. The colour-coded cleaning tools. How it hurt to breathe in, with the thick mint balm they made us apply under the nostrils.

And the noise. Coming from behind the locked doors in the corridors.

Bang, bang, bang.

*

‘Miss Barale is dead,’ I told Lily while I played with the pasta in my bowl.

‘The pianist?’

‘Yes. She wasn’t there when I went to do my rounds. Passed away yesterday.’

‘Was it…?’

‘Yeah. She’d had it for two weeks. I didn’t know. They only gave her painkillers.’

I dropped the bowl on the floor.

‘Dad was admitted to the hospital. A neighbour called me.’ My tears were solid like a tennis ball, down at the back of my throat. Hard to swallow.

I knew the hospital he was in. We’d been there before when they had to extract his gallbladder. Rooms were small, but they faced a park. At this time of the year, he would be seeing black poplar trees with their new lime-coloured leaves

‘That’s good, María. They’ll take care of him there,’ Lily said. I knew what she meant. Miss Barale hadn’t been given that chance.

‘I hired a private nurse to stay with him day and night… I don’t want him alone.’

I thought of the residents at the care home, quarantined in their rooms. Without carers, we were now in charge of bringing them food in trays. Some of the domestics refused to enter the rooms. They said it wasn’t their job, and that they were scared of getting near the residents without proper face masks and PPE. I still did. Tried to clean them a bit, if they let me. Calm down their cries. Give notice when I found out someone had stopped breathing.

‘He may get out. He wants to see you again, that’ll give him strength,’ Lily said. ‘I can lend you money if you need it. For the nurse.’

‘No, no, I’m fine. All I’m doing is to pay a stranger to hold his hand. It should be me there, changing his bedpan, helping him eat.’

‘But you can’t travel there now,’ Lily said. ‘And it doesn’t look like countries are opening borders any time soon.’

I checked my phone. Nothing. I felt nauseous every time I thought I’d felt it vibrating in my pocket, or discovered the red notification of a missed call.

‘You’re getting better at Petrushka,’ Lily tried to change the subject. ‘I can’t get past the first page.’

‘It’s all over now. Without Miss Barale, I…’

‘Why?’

‘Well, I was just hoping that she would, you know, eventually teach me or at least explain to me what is that I…’

The cries came out of nowhere, dry and raspy. I hid my face behind my hands even though I knew no one could see me. I thought about the black body bags left on the beds because the new cold storage unit was full. They looked like bin bags. Like the ones Dad dragged home years ago, full of CDs, as if he’d found a treasure.

*

I moved through the large bright space of the basement which seemed to contract and expand like a giant heart. I felt very hot—the fluorescent lights shining on me like piercing suns. The bin bag tied as an apron melting with my uniform onto my bare skin. I had forgotten to check my temperature for days. Not good. I took off my face mask. I couldn’t breathe.

The refrigerators went on with their humming. Rows and rows of them, glossy white. They seemed to move ever so slightly, almost as if they were breathing. I blinked to focus my vision.

I wondered what the brains inside looked like. If they were all in containers, or in bags. Would they have tags attached to them? Perhaps small labels noting the weight, who the brain belonged to. Maybe some information about the person.

It couldn’t be that difficult to locate Miss Barale’s.

I imagined her playing Petrushka at the Royal Albert Hall, packed full, her fingers repeating a perfect sequence of movements that emulated the melodies of a whole symphony orchestra. All the neural connections sharp and sublime waves pouring over her body.

What would it be like to taste them?

pencil

Inés G. Labarta is a fiction writer currently living in the southwest of England. She has published a collection of middle-grade novels—Los Pentasónicos (Edebé, 2008-2010) and two novellas—McTavish Manor (Holland House, 2016) and Kabuki (Dairea, 2017). Her forthcoming novel, The Three Lives of Saint Ciarán (Blackwater Press, 2023), was described by Toby Litt as ‘exciting and provocative’. She has an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth. Twitter: @InesGLabarta Email: ines.g.labarta[at]gmail.com

The Busy Day

Fiction
Hannah Hopkins


Photo Credit: convex021/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Had a busy day, love?”

He looks at me from behind his notepad. His eyes are red, milky, lined around the edges.

To him, it’s just another day at work. He’s glancing at his watch, dreaming of his wife’s homemade cooking, thinking of the car ride home, the half-drunk can of Coke in his cup holder, the cigarette he wants to roll. He wants it over. He’s waiting for freedom.

I’ve lost all of mine.

His partner is entertaining the children. Keeping them busy so he can ask me questions.

Had a busy day?

The words hang in the air. He’s making small talk. He’s glancing at the mess around us. Wrapping paper strewn about the floor, a pile of assorted junk on the table, crumbs on the chair I haven’t cleaned, the faint smell of cooking in the air.

Had a busy day?

Not a question, but a judgement.

“Yes,” I say. I can struggle to speak, can’t look at him. “My son’s birthday.”

Resentment boils inside. He’s making me chat. Small talk. After everything that’s happened. He wants to understand, but his attempts to force normality proves he never will.

You, with your balding head, your big strong arms, the thing between your legs that buys you privilege and safety. You’ll never understand…

“Lovely. Special day then. How old is he?”

“Three.”

I look over to him and his brother playing with their toys. They’re happy, shielded, innocent. Somehow, it makes it worse. They’re acting out the safe and normal life all children deserve. He wanted to take it away.

And no one gives a damn.

“I’m going to have to go over some questions,” Officer Chit-Chat says. “You might have answered them before, but it’s important we ask them each time there’s an incident. Understood?”

“Yes.”

 

I listen, answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as he goes through his list, lowering his voice on the words ‘strangled,’ ‘choked,’ ‘drowned,’ and ‘sexual consent.’ Violent words uttered inches away from innocent ears. I worry for them. It’ll traumatise them. Hover in their subconscious. Manifest later in their life. But it’s too late for all that.

 

There’s a pause as Officer Chit-Chat looks at me again. I wonder if I should offer him a cup of tea. It seems absurd. We sit in silence. I choke on my sentences before they leave my mouth. There are many things I want to tell him, but they stay trapped inside my head.

 

See my eyes? They didn’t always look like this. They had life once. When I used to be someone. A real person. I wasn’t destined to sit in mess and chaos barely holding on to myself. I was meant for more. And it was all taken.

 

My eyes drift towards the window. It’s dark outside. The neighbours’ Christmas lights are up. They twinkle at me, taunting me, blinking as they say, ‘you should be happy.’

My mind drifts to the Time Before, when dewy-eyed I’d stepped onto a street of terraced houses filled with young students and into another night of fun. Life was romantic then. Tinted with a cinematic quality that bathed everything in gold. Bad Things happened, but they were far away. They didn’t happen to me or anyone I knew. Not really. Not in a way that couldn’t be fixed by alcohol and denial. Bad Things were for the news. Or for stories you nodded at but forgot straight after. Drama, not trauma. It was all just part of the story. Growing pains. Nothing serious.

 

There were boys who hurt girls, of course, but they didn’t mean it. They didn’t understand. Boys will be boys. And besides, as they so often reminded us,

 

There are two sides

To every story.

 

In the Time Before I walked the streets shielded by friends, protected by low inhibitions. No fear. We yelled into the night, stumbling, and laughing, drawing attention to ourselves. I wore short skirts and danced with boys I didn’t know. I went into strangers’ houses, walked home by myself in the dark, never questioned that pervasive feeling that came when I woke in someone’s bed without remembering the night before.

 

It was Wonderland. An illusion. I was never safe. I just didn’t know it.

 

At the beginning of the end, I arrived at a bleak, brown house and opened a rusted gate, weaving past smokers and overflowing bins to find the front door. The Cure was blaring, the upstairs windows were open, all sorts of smells wafting out.

 

Inside, the smell of aftershave and sweat, faces I didn’t recognise. I went into the living room, stepping over an abandoned mattress being used to bobsled down the stairs, and sat down among bottles and ashtrays and strangers who argued about the best James Bond films and looked at me and my friends with a desire I took as a compliment.

I joined in their debate. They watched me enthralled. Behind the make-up, the body on show, there was a brain. Who would have thought it? I let their surprise nurture my confidence, let it feed my power.

 

A thrill.

An addiction.

A rush.

Dice I rolled every night.

Not knowing how high the stakes were.

 

I walked into the kitchen and found him standing there, a red party cup in his hand, a leather jacket on his shoulders. His face wasn’t nice, but he was tall and charismatic. I could tell from the way he filled the room. He commanded something. I poured myself a vodka lemonade into a cup with lipstick on the rim and looked up.

 

Our eyes met.

And something exploded.

 

He walked over; his eyes fixed to mine. They held me with intensity. Electricity. He had me. A movie moment. The first connection.

He had me.

From that moment on.

I talked and he listened. He said things that came straight from the pages of a novel. It was what I wanted to hear. What I wanted to believe.

So I did.

‘I’ve never felt like this before. It was meant to be. No one will ever see you the way I do. No one will love you as much as me.’

And love me he did.

Until he didn’t.

Until his eyes turned cold.

Until they were empty.

Emotionless.

Until he threw things and screamed the worst insults I could imagine.

Used all my fears against me.

And when that wasn’t enough.

Used his fists instead.

He was tired. Struggling at work. Going through a rough patch. I was lazy. I was weak. He worked so hard. He expected things to be done. People react to anger in different ways. Men will be men. What could I expect?

And besides, as he often reminded me

There are two sides

To every story.

I learned fast. Do what it takes to keep him happy.

And he’ll keep his fists away.

From me and the children.

If I make him angry, he’s not responsible for what he does.

And I can handle it.

I can keep this balance.

Stop everything from falling apart.

I know him.

Except I didn’t.

He was a monster.

I’d invited into my life.

Swearing blind he was an angel.

*

“I did my best to protect them.”

Officer Chit-Chat looks at me, his mask slipping. He’s confused.

“I did my best to protect them. And when things got bad, I got us out. Kept us safe. I was careful. I was so careful…”

I stop talking. I’m losing my composure. If I make myself look like a Mad Woman, no one will listen.

Officer Chit-Chat clears his throat.

“Do you have any idea how he might have found you? Anything you might have posted online? A friend who might have given your address?”

“No.”

“Alright. Well, I think we’ve done all we can do here for tonight. You have my suggestions. A list of charities to call. They’ll help you get a restraining order.”

I smile.

A piece of paper was never going to stop him.

 

Officer Chit-Chat and his partner get up to leave, their eyes glazed with thoughts of evening plans.

I see them to the door. Say goodbyes. Nod my head as they remind me of their safety tips, the places to get information.

When I close the door, the horror breaks free.

It comes out in waves. Tears pour down my cheeks.

“Mummy’s crying.”

“Mummy’s okay, darling.”

I drag myself up the stairs.

For bath, story, and bed.

Normality.

Holding it together.

Like I always do.

My seams are bursting, but I can’t spill out. Not in front of the children. Otherwise, it’ll be me they turn on.

As if it’s my fault.

He turned up.

Wanting to hurt us.

Wanting to scare me beyond repair.

 

I put the children in the bath. Soap, warm water, bubbles. I listen to their chatter. I watch their cheeks turn pink. Cut their nails. Clean behind their ears. Wash their hair.

I put my hand under the shower head to check the water. Red pours into the bath.

Red like passion, anger, fear, heat, and blood.

Red like murder.

I close my eyes and open them. The red is gone.

Everything is pure and proper.

 

I pull the children from the bath and wrap them in towels.

I follow them into the bedroom. Hours earlier I stood at this window, my eyes meeting the gaze of a man who could destroy me and feel nothing.

And his eyes looked at me in shock

When I left the boys watching T.V.

Went into the yard and found the crowbar in the shed

Snuck through the alleyway that led to the other side of the road

Crept up behind him

Heart in throat

And struck him once on the head

The only way to be sure

He could never hurt us again.

The light in his eyes faded.

Mine grew cold.

And Officer Chit-Chat would never suspect

The bleary woman he met today

With mascara on her face and coffee stains on her shirt

Would be capable of such things.

Had a busy day, love?

Don’t check the garden shed, officer.

I’ll have a busier day tomorrow.

pencil

Hannah Hopkins is an emerging writer currently working in education. As a survivor, she wishes to use her experience to help others through the medium of fiction. She is studying a creative writing course through Oxford University and is working on a young adult novel. TikTok: @whathannah_writes Email: hannahelliehopkins94[at]outlook.com

The Last Thing You Ever Gave Me

Fiction
Sarah Hills


Photo Credit: Sarah Ross/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After twelve months, your letter arrived, Henry, posted by your solicitor. She enclosed it, as per instructions, with a short one of her own that told me the directions of your will had been carried out, that members of your family had chosen not to contest, that the sending of this letter was the last instruction. She said I could contact her, if I wished.

Your letter was exactly as you had read it out to me that last day. Nothing I had said had changed your mind, obviously.

I had wondered if you might leave me at least a modicum of your money. A little recompense at least, but no. You always were a poor sugar daddy.

 

As soon as I had returned to my hometown (home still, despite my parents having moved south, heading for the sun) I looked for work. I was a college dropout, failed student. The only job available was at a bar and pizza restaurant, close to the harbour on the river. It fitted the bill: work that would fill the evenings, leave me exhausted, bringing only dreamless sleep in the early hours. In amongst the crowded noise and dim lighting, I was forced to shout, forced to talk to people, to shed my shy skin like a convulsing growing reptile. From the moment I left you I determined to shut out the words, all the fancy, fiery, sparkling, expanding words you encouraged me to play with. I kept only the functional ones, like normal people use. The ones without power. I visualised the abandoned vocabulary like the peeled off remains of sunburn, dead flakes, so much dust and ashes.

In my fresh damp skin, I met Dave there, one of the bartenders. One late night, Dave and I, having finished our shifts, betting we could be friends, took leftover pizzas to the benches by the river, and ate them there, hot and steaming in the still chill air of November. You would still have been alive then.

We talked about our recent pasts. His string of casual girlfriends and my sugar daddy. My words garnished lavishly with bitterness among the black olives and mozzarella.

He cocked an eyebrow over a triangle of pizza. “Your tutor tried to get his leg over and when you told him to piss off, he still hung around? He must have been after something. Jesus.”

I had taken his sympathy and raised the bet to casual sex, which he accepted because he had form that way, as he had explained. That was just the start and, with a bottle of wine from the late-night garage on the way home, we drank our way to bed. I was glad I had never slept with you; I had no trace of your skin on mine to erase, no memory of your body against mine to compare anyone too. Dave had a good body, dark against my light, lean against my soft, he had clever, gentle hands and lips made for eating and kissing, not language. He was not haunted by the need to articulate everything, not cursed by dancing words in the middle of the night.

 

I buried you so far down I thought you had gone with the words.

 

You were not a proper sugar daddy, Henry. Though I wanted you to be. Me, a grey shadow at the back of lectures, seminars. Words danced in my head but died against the backs of my gritted teeth, kamikaze, before exploding backwards across my tongue in all kinds of clever fireworks I never let off. I welcomed your advances after tutorials. You, the antique star of the Literature department, your books long ago published and too far dissected by generations of students. Your reputation of disgustingly randy lech ran before you like a rank smell. I was not choosy. I only wanted to touch greatness, even half-buried greatness. I wanted to trace its pattern with my fingertips and compare it to mine, find out if words cast spells in your head the same way.

My flattery did not gain your attention, nor the way I could quote your books at you. I was just one of a multitude of mimicking voices, you could not hear my hushed voice amongst the din. You only noticed the way short skirts slipped up my thigh as I turned in my chair, the way my blouse skidded across cleavage to give glimpses of creamy curves that made your fingers twitch and your mouth salivate. It was a physical thing that I was prepared to give. Like I offered treats to the elephant at the zoo just to be close to that sheer mountain of strength, to experience that moment of communication.

I lured you to my flat and you were, oh, so willing. I lit candles, warmed red wine and made the bed with clean fresh sheets. I left your books out, casually spilling their words from open pages, bookmarked, dog-eared, thinking to flatter you, but I realised later that they acted like gravel scattered across the carpet, piercing your flabby bare feet with sharp points, grazing your ego with the hard rebukes they had become.

When I went to get the wine, you reached among papers on my desk and picked up words of mine.

I came back to find the full light on, and you sat on the hard chair reading, pen in hand.

Henry, I had dreamed there would be a beautiful connection between us. But you made it ugly. You said you could not make love to me. You would not let me take the texture of you between my fingers to find out how the fabric was woven. You refused my advances, even though I managed to put my leg over yours and balance on your knee for a fractal second before your cold eyes blew me away across the room.

You spread my words out, marked in red, and tapped the pages. You said the words were good, but I had much to learn.

You asked what writing was and I told you it was witchcraft, spell-making, about the way the words came together in my head and created things. You said that was not how you saw it, that you saw writers more as reed beds filtering the streams of life through them, giving words to what was there so that life was clearer, cleaner. You quoted Wittgenstein, said language was the net humans threw across the world to make sense of it.

I argued that took the magic out of it, how would natural language come through if you thought it was all about control? I remember you laughed and were surprised, saying you could not remember the last time talking about words had made you laugh.

You asked what else I had and, in the end, pressed between my over and under confidences, I gave you my secret black book and you went away.

I was left to comfort myself and finally cry myself to sleep, naked under my many covers.

For months after that, Henry, you lent me book after book, led me through poet after poet, story after story. We talked for hours about old writers and new, the stories that vary and repeat, the new ways words push through. You shook the little walls in my mind, until I let the night winds blow through, let the words in whenever they wanted in, allowed them to ransack the place, letting the pieces fall where they wanted.

We laughed a lot, about nights when words woke us, tingling free-falling lines in our heads, about scribbling notes in the darkness to capture the music of them. The spangle and glitter of language infected us until we were like children getting ready for Christmas. My first year summer semester, all of my second year; you were my university.

 

I told Dave I had received the solicitor’s letter.

He raised his eyebrows. “He’s dead? Did he leave you something then? Was he rich?”

“No. Poets are not rich. He had a house and a pension. Things you and I can only dream about, Dave. But there is a wife, three children and grandchildren.”

“Not so much a sugar daddy then, only a lech.”

I flinched at that, and Dave opened his black eyes wide, as if he could suddenly see me and all my emotions pinned out like a dead butterfly.

“You loved him,” he declared.

 

The sensation of you saturates through me, as if waves from the sea of you crash onto the shore of me, saltwater stinging through the sore sand, but you no longer have a skeleton net to hold you in, so I lose you, time and time again.

Both with you and without I am lost. You were the glue that held me together and now all the pieces of me randomly spin, disconnected, a diaspora of one.

 

I cried a little then and Dave slid an arm round my shoulders.

Which was how a temporary job in my hometown became a year and then two years, and a fling with Dave became a casual thing and then dissolved into a relationship. His words, when they came, were sweeter than yours, of course, saccharine, fructose-corn syrup, compulsive, consumptive, complimentary. My ego became obese, my skin swollen with lust. Which is not love. As you would have pointed out.

But it stopped the words free-associating in my head. They no longer woke me in the night chattering. Instead, I suffered from nightmares about the house burning down and, when I woke in the mornings, the smell in my nostrils was acrid smoke, charred air. On rare evenings I was not at work and Dave was out, I would find myself flattened against the sofa in front of the TV, turning up the contrasts and volume, as if the over-bright colours were a blanket pressing down, wiping out, silencing, the loud sounds mothballing, putting me on ice.

I do not know how long this would have lasted if Dave had not thrown in the towel.

“You are not serious.” He said. “You do not want to be here. You are passing through.”

When I protested that I had been here nearly three years, he said. “Not this place. Me. For you, it’s like we are still in the first week. You never talk about the future. You never say you love me.”

I opened my eyes wide and looked at him then and for the first time saw the pink around his heart and the blue around his eyes. I realised I was standing on the edge of being cruel. I stepped back, bowed my head, said my apologies. Afterwards I heard in his voice, underneath his walking-away words, the crushed dried petals of hope that this conversation would wake my love for him out of sleep.

But it did not, because it was not sleeping. There was never any life there.

 

All that time I had sat and studied under your direction, Henry, rather, your misdirection. Hours and days in the library, blindfolded head down, while you took the poems from my black book and let them out into the world. You published them under Anonymous, with a foreword from you. Then, as we dined in an expensive restaurant, you gave me the first copy in a tissue-lined box, your only ever present to me, on the last evening we spent together.

Sugar daddy. There was nothing sweet in you. You were canker, sourness, the bitterness of bile that burns from the inside coming up. I thought to learn from you, but you robbed this cradle of its gifts and took my rightful bow.

The food I pushed away as it arrived, my bones glued to my skin, no room within for anything.

You said, “You’ll thank me in the end.”

You said, “I’m dying, by the way. I have about a year. I wanted to do this for you.”

I said, “What is it you have done, but steal my tongue?”

You blinked at that. Pulled out the letter from your pocket then and read it to me: You wanted to set me free, from the beginning. To let my words out without the eyes of the world glaring at me, stopping me writing, blocking the creative process. You had set up a trust fund, and proceeds from the book, if any, would go in there and you could let me have them, as you saw fit. After your death, it would come to me, if anything. You did not think your wife would disagree, although you were not telling her, she was the jealous kind.

I pushed back my chair, screeches ripped across the floor, bats dive-bombing among the chandeliers. “Sugar daddies are supposed to give, not take.”

You smiled then. “My dear. This is the greatest gift that I could give.”

“To yourself maybe. But not to me. I would rather have sucked your cock than have you prostitute my words with your name stitched on.”

I had the satisfaction of slapping your old face and watching your mouth slam open and eyebrows ricochet up your brow. Then I left and left for good, heading straight back home before I even knew I should.

 

After I finished with him, all those sugar-frosted phrases of Dave’s rotted my teeth. I woke the morning after he left with terrible pain in my jaw. The emergency dentist, holding her head back from the swamp fetid air of my mouth, pointed out the rot in my back teeth, top and bottom. Warned if I did not sort things out my teeth would become black stumps.

I let her pull the worst out, drill remaining decay with silver-tipped points, the feel and the noise shivering down my bones like foil ripping between my teeth. I lay there with my eyes glued to the ceiling behind protective glasses against the glaring lights. Just because I am cursed with night witch wordsmiths, who hammer syllables into thin-lined spells, dropping them into my brain in the dark, does not make me immune to vicissitudes of viscous verbals.

I had imagined I was holding Dave as a shield against the world, against the words, but his own speech, denied its proper target of my heart, insidious, held itself in my mouth, pressed against my tongue, my teeth, until at least the protection of my enamel dissolved before it, at least it got to the root of something.

I lay on my back under the metal drill and let it drive home that all words have power and power must out or will corrupt.

And I think of you as I had first seen you, faded and, I realise now, mute. A writer with no more words. A person with no power. And how that must have hurt you, surrounded by books of your own words but unable to speak anymore.

That afternoon I nurse my numb swollen mouth and email the solicitor. Who emails back and transfers me the balance of the trust. The same as a year of working in the bar. Then for the first time I look to see how the book is doing out in the world and find people are reading it, quietly, steadily, and writing reviews that sparkle and distort my image of myself and I have to hold onto the table edge which is suddenly high off the ground, in case I fall. I put my hands in front of my face to stop people seeing me and then draw them back, for you have done that for me, you have put the mask of your name over my face.

 

That night words fall through the air towards me in my dreams, like burning fragments carried by smoke from enormous fires, raging just beyond the horizon. I can see the tips of flames licking into the air, clouds of sparks dancing, but although I walk towards it hard, I can never get any closer. I wake with tears on my face and the sweetness of wood smoke in my room.

The next night poems crash my dreams in chattering lines and will not let me sleep. When I put pen to paper under the bedside table’s dim light I can feel you in the room, just out of sight. Your smugness almost hamstrings my pen, but the lines are too good to waste. After all these years I am starving.

In the morning, I am afraid to read the words over. Words written at night are often puke spewed across the page in the daylight. But I hold my breath in against my heart and read them again and they still blaze along the plain lines like firecrackers.

At work I carry the knowledge of the page and your last letter like seedlings emerging out of the deep dark within me, wondering what they would grow into, where they might take me. I smile at students coming into the bar and while I still serve them ridiculous numbers of discounted shots, persuade them to at least eat the pizza slices alongside to line their stomach for their own good. I take my breaks outside on the waterfront of the river, smoking roll-ups and watching the dark water flow away under the bridge.

At the end of the night, hardly able to see my hands for the blur of spells buzzing in my head, I hand in my notice.

 

Now, after all my scorn and running halfway round the world, I find that I was always on my way back to you. The college have accepted me in to finish my degree; it turns out you left them a letter telling them your behaviour towards me was disreputable and deplorable—the last valorous act of a latterly honourable man.

I am standing by your graveside, Henry, mouth bruised, teeth lost, breath of a witch’s arse, words fresh and mad in my head, resurrected and holding the mask and lifeline you left me.

You can laugh the last laugh now.

pencil

Sarah Hills lives in Yorkshire in the North of England. She has recently started taking her writing more seriously. Email: sarah5064[at]live.com

In a Name

Fiction
Mary Chambers


Photo Credit: Kat Stan/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The street was an island, a village in the middle of a city, an expensive haven of art galleries and clothing boutiques. Here, suddenly free from the traffic that had occupied all my attention as I drove, was an archway leading to a mews, a lady cycling in a black straw boater, a child on a scooter in green school pinafore. From a glossy Arabic patisserie wafted the odour of rose-scented pastry; the café next door gave out the acrid reek of roasting green beans.

The buildings were narrow and high, with a presence that only central London buildings possess. Most of them had been divided into tiny flats. On wrought-iron balconies, twin chairs were arranged, suggesting brunch for two on a Saturday morning.

Viola was here, somewhere behind the blue door that led to the flats above the hairdresser. How could she exist here, I wondered, in the midst of this calm and order? My half-sister Viola was chaos and crisis. What I found behind that blue door would bear no resemblance to the hanging baskets on the streetlamps, to the exquisitely arranged creations in the cellophaned, beribboned window of the patisserie. How could she even afford to live here?

She had never invited me to her home before. She drifted in and out of our lives at will—always on her terms and never on her territory. My house, the cafe near my office, Hyde Park with my children at the weekend. She was ten years younger than me, and although our door had always been open to her, Viola kept her own life fiercely separate.

I had heard nothing of her for months. But today she had called me at work. “Come and see me. There’s something I want to show you.” And she had given me the address. “Today,” she insisted. “Can you come today?”

And so, obedient as always, I had come.

“Polly.” Her voice through the intercom was distorted, giving nothing away. “Come on up.”

Her flat was right at the top, an artist’s garret, up three narrowing flights of creaking stairs. She was waiting for me, her face pallid in the half light at the top. A spare, boyish figure, as she had always been, but when we hugged she was somehow rounder, fuller, a damp warmth of human scent that was not her usual odour of turps and linseed oil.

“How are you, Vee?”

She went into the flat ahead of me, not answering. The last time I had been in a flat of Viola’s must have been in her days at St Martin’s. Canvases, half-constructed sculptures in chicken wire and plaster bandages, a detritus of dirty clothes and discarded plates of toast. This might have been the same mess, transported only a mile or two across town, although through several years in time. A drift of laundry and shopping bags, papers, empty mugs, and a coffee table strewn with orange peel. A canvas stood on an easel by the window: a woman in a blue dress, bloated with pregnancy and glowing as if with a secret that only Viola’s paintbrush knew. Other work adorned the walls: pages from sketchbooks, taped up with masking tape. Splashes of colour, swirls of life, Viola exploring one medium after another.

On the sofa, a packet of nappies had split open and spilt onto the floor. The baby slept on the cushions, her arms flung up above her head like an abandoned doll. A baby so new that the vernix still crusted in the folds of her skin, the yellow plastic hospital clip clinging to her drying umbilical cord.

“I wanted to show you.” Viola crouched down and touched a finger to the baby’s cheek. She looked up like a child showing off something she had made. “I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t told anyone yet. I wanted you to see.”

My mouth was suddenly dry, all words startled away from me. I would wake up in a moment and this would not be true—that I was there with Viola, that Viola, lonely independent Viola, was the mother of a baby.

“She’s mine,” declared Viola with a sudden defiance, as if I had asked a question. But that, I did not doubt. My sister had never lacked the capacity to surprise me. It would have surprised me less to find myself ten years old again, and the baby Viola herself, the same sharp pale features, the same shock of soft dark hair.

“But Vee—do people know?”

“You mean the midwives. Yes, of course—they did that, didn’t they?” She pointed to the brown stump of drying umbilicus. “And they showed me how to feed her.”

“Are you breastfeeding?” How could I imagine my sister doing anything so maternal? And yet, at the same time, how could Viola do anything else?

“Of course,” she repeated. “That’s what they’re for, aren’t they?” She pressed her hands to her breasts. Through her splayed fingers I saw that the fabric of her shirt was wet where she had leaked, and I recalled the unfamiliar dampness of our embrace.

“Vee,” I began, but I hesitated. How are you going to manage? I wanted to say. Or Are you sure this is a good idea? But it was too late for that—the baby already a precious sleeping fact on the sofa before us. Who is the father? Where is he? Does he know? There were a thousand questions I could ask. But in the end, none of them seemed to matter—just the baby, and Viola herself, who was suddenly more than an artistic vortex around which chaos whirled—Viola, centred on this tiny perfect being that she had created.

“Vee, she’s beautiful.”

Viola looked at me with relief, and when she smiled, the smile transformed her, softening the angles of her face and giving her the same glow that she had somehow managed to catch in the painting by the window.

“She is, isn’t she? I love her, Polly. I never knew you could love anyone so much—until now.”

The baby snuffled and stretched, working her tiny mouth as she began to stir into waking.

“She’s hungry.” Viola gathered the infant into her arms, folding herself into the spot where the baby had been lying.

I sat on a stool and watched as Viola fed her daughter. She held the baby as I remembered her holding herself when she was a teenager—hugging herself, locking herself in, shutting the world out, her arms forming a barrier that kept her—and her child—in a safe place, beyond which the mess and the chaos did not matter. Within that embrace the two of them were together, like two parts of a single being.

“Have you given her a name yet?”

“Not yet. I’m thinking. It has to be just right, doesn’t it, a name?” She looked at me sharply. “How did you choose? How did you ever decide that Jack was going to be Jack and Georgia was going to be Georgia? How do you give a person something so fundamental as a name?”

I shrugged. Jack had always been Jack. And Georgia—Georgia’s name had grown with her as she grew in my belly. Georgina, we had thought. But Georgina had never been quite right, and when she was born she could only have been Georgia.

“It felt right. We just knew. You’ll know when you find the right name.”

Viola shook her head, gazing down at her daughter’s tiny face.

“That’s the difference between you and me, Polly. You always just know. You’re a real woman, aren’t you? You have instincts and you know how to respond to them—and you run a house and hold down a job, too. Multitasking!” She screwed up her face as if the word had a sour taste. “I’m not like you. I can’t do any of those things. All I know is what to do with paint. That’s the only time I ever just know.”

I had never before known Viola to comment on the differences between us, although James and I had occasionally pondered them. Viola wandered in and out of our home and our lives; she would wallow in the company of my children for an hour, showing them how to make pinch pots out of clay, or weaving Georgia’s hair into hundreds of tiny braids—and then she would go, picking up her aloofness at the door and departing, apparently with relief, back to her own carefully guarded separateness.

“You know how to do that,” I said, indicating the suckling baby.

“This?” Viola touched a hand to her breast again. “This isn’t knowing—it’s just being. Just being a woman.” And she wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell her that not all mothers found it so easy.

When the baby had finished, Viola turned her to face me, nestling her into the crook of her elbow.

“That’s your Aunty Polly,” she addressed the child chattily. “You’ve got an Aunty Polly and an Uncle James, and a Jack and a Georgia. You’ll get to know all of them soon.” She paused, staring at the baby as if filling her eyes with her, taking in every tiny detail, the same way she observed the details that made up her art.

Then, as if coming to a sudden decision: “Here,” she said. “You take her.”

She leapt up, holding the child out to me, and somehow I too was on my feet, my niece in my hands. I was not expecting her and I almost dropped her; Viola had to put out a steadying hand to give me time to collect myself. “Take her,” she repeated, as I adjusted my hold. “Quick, take her and go, before I change my mind.”

I stared at her. Surely she could not mean what she seemed to mean?

Viola was already propelling me towards the door. “It’ll be better that way,” she insisted—but her voice broke as she said it. “You’ll be a better mother to her than I can ever be. You’re already a mother. You’ll know what to do. They won’t take her away from you. You’ll let me see her.”

“What do you mean, Vee? Who’s going to take her away?”

“That’s what they do, isn’t it? Don’t they take babies away from unsuitable mothers? Nobody in their right minds would leave a child with me—I’ve never even babysat for one of yours! Look at me, Polly. What have I got? A studio flat full of stinking noxious chemicals. No job, no reliable income. What would I do with a child?”

The room had been full of questions ever since I entered it, and once Viola had started she couldn’t stop adding to them. “What if she cries and I don’t know what to do? What if I hurt her? What if I lose my temper and drop her out the window? I could have a moment of madness and push the pram out in front of a taxi—if I even had a pram, that is. They’ll take her away from me—they ought to, just for thinking those things—and it would break my heart.”

She was crying now—still trying to push me towards the door, but at the same time stretching out a hand to touch the baby again—half reaching for her, half holding back, like a puppet pulled about by too many strings.

“Vee,” I said firmly. “Nobody is going to take your baby away.” And I said it with confidence. “You might think those dreadful things, but you think them because you love her and you don’t want them to happen to her.”

“How do you know?” demanded Viola.

I thought of Georgia, sobbing and inconsolable night after night with colic. Of Jack, the baby who never slept. Of moments of despair, when James was at work and all I wanted to do was sleep. I could quite happily have propelled a little warm body from a third storey window—so I had thought. But I had never done it.

“You won’t,” I insisted. “Vee, I used to think those things too.”

She stared at me. “You? Really, Polly?”

“There were days when I couldn’t stop thinking like that.”

This made her pause, but after a moment she brushed it aside. “But you had James. James was there for you. What about me? There’s nobody here to stop me!”

You’re here,” I said. “You’re here, and the baby’s here, and you’ll stop yourself, because you love her. It wasn’t James that stopped me—James wasn’t always there. It was Georgia herself, Georgia and me together, somehow having to make it work.”

“You never told me.” Her tone is accusing.

“You never asked—nobody ever asked.” I hadn’t even told James of those terrible, almost forgotten moments. I hadn’t told anybody. “But I only thought it, Vee. Thinking doesn’t make you a bad mother—it’s what you do that matters.”

My senses were full of the baby in my arms: her warm weight against my chest, the milky smell of her, the comma-like curl of her fingers around mine. It would have been so easy to take her with me. Walk out of the flat, get her into the car—get a car seat from somewhere—and take her home. My family would make room for her: Jack would dote on her, Georgia would mother her, James would raise his eyebrows and remark on Viola’s inadequacies but would never dispute giving her a home. She would fill a space that almost seemed to be there, in my heart, ready and waiting for her. But she was not mine to take.

I placed the baby in Viola’s arms and Viola enfolded her, drawing her child back into herself with a tiny sob of relief.

“You do know,” I told her. “You know exactly what to do. You know how to love her—and it starts with knowing that whatever you might imagine, you’ll never let anything hurt her.”

Viola pressed her lips to the baby’s soft hair. “I do love her.”

“We’ll always be there if you need us. For both of you.”

She nodded.

“I’ll bring you some baby clothes. And I think Jack’s Moses basket is still in the loft.”

It was time to go. If I stayed, I might change my mind—might accept this gift that had been pressed on me, and run away with it. If I stayed, Viola would voice more questions. There would be more words to linger in the air and haunt her.

I would come back later. I would come often.

As I started down the stairs, Viola said my name. I looked back. The pale light from the skylight cast a silvered halo onto her dark hair.

“Lara,” she said. “Her name is Lara.”

pencil

Mary Chambers lives in Reading, UK, in a house between two rivers. She’s self-employed as a proofreader and copyeditor, and writes fiction in the gaps between reading other people’s writing and caring for her two children. In the 2020 lockdowns she self-published a children’s picture book, Alina Saves The Moon, with local artist-illustrator Leslee Barron. She is currently working on a historical novel. Email: mary.katalun[at]googlemail.com

Operation

Fiction
Sophy Bristow


Photo Credit: Jenn Vargas/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Wishbone (1978, Age Five): My arm feels like the Christmas wishbone snapping as mum pulls my hand… ‘Leave it, Megan. It’s dirty’… ow, it hurts, and my knees are wet, marks on my tights, trying to reach the red circle, my favourite hairband… but mum snatches it and puts it in her pocket, I want to ask her for it, but she’s looking across the courtyard… I stare at the ground with shiny flecks to dance around, I want to go to that puddle, but her arm is yanking mine again… ‘It’s dirty here, Megan. What did I just say?’… she points at the spot by the wall with the coloured swirls where she always makes me stand, maybe they’ll let me in this time… ‘Stay here where I can see you, I won’t be long, I’m watching you’… but she’s still looking away as she says, ‘I’ll give it back later if you’re good, and we can play Operation’… wish-bone, funny-bone, knee-bone, round red nose… I can see a red circle on the coloured wall and I jiggle from side-to-side giggling because she always tickles me when the buzzer rings… but then she’s walking into the alleyway like last time, and that man is with her, his coat looks square and has shiny buttons… from the side his nose is the shape of my favourite green triangle chocolate… I’m not sure where he came from, but I don’t like him, and now I want to cry… I look at them, then back at the wall sploshed all over with swirls and blobs… I trace my finger along the bright lines, seeing if I can find a cat, a seagull or even her face among them… but it’s just circles, round buttons, red noses… I tap where my wishbone is… and every now and again I look over my shoulder, for her hand coming back towards me out of the dark.

 

[(1995, Age 22): Blinking through wind-whipped dust, I loop my arm through Tom Boyce’s and say through my smile—‘wait ‘til you see this.’ He pulls away and turns to look at the house perched in front of us on this north London street. It’s another in a line of angular Georgian buildings, with flat faces and multipaned windows making compound eyes. The stray crisp packets flitting around and unremedied cracks across the frontage mark it out as a student place. Number 26, where me, Katie and Natasha live. As I turn the key and open the front door, Tom and I can only make out a deep, green shade and the heavy smell of blossom.

I unhook my arm and pull on his hand. We go inside, but instead of a hallway cut by the angled light from a landing window, we step straight into the swaying layers of a garden. Instead of the sigh of pine floorboards, we feel newly dug soil underfoot, and a low branch creaks in the breeze. Reaching out, our hands brush, not plaster walls, but the tip-tops of leaves. Around us everything points upwards, hollyhocks stretching, peas and beans twisting around skinny poles…]

 

Butterflies in Stomach (1989, Age Sixteen): It’s pouring, and the salty taste of the sea runs down my face with the rain. I duck down a passageway to get away from cars spraying puddles and I shelter against a high wall. Shit, I shove all my shopping into one Topshop plastic bag because all the paper ones are soaking wet and falling apart. My fingers are numb and I flick at my pink plastic lighter trying to light a Camel Light, fuck, the wind keeps blowing it out, my hands are freezing. I really want that skirt I saw in H&M, did I get the right colour eyeliner, is Clearasil going to dry my skin out, should I get those Doc Martens, can anyone from school see me, did I go too far with Tom Boyce and will he call?

I peer up through the blur of rain and look around to see where I am. It’s like that place you always end up when you leave the cinema through the fire exit, blurry as you adjust to the light, broken glass crunching, graffiti yelling at you. I see the red circle painted on the wall opposite.

I’m here? I’m in the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it, the one where mum would make me wait by the wall while she disappeared off with that man in his buttoned-up uniform. Shit, my fringe is soaking, it’s in my eyes, it’s going to go frizzy, I can taste hair product on my lips, can anyone see me? I pull my hood up further over my head. Will Doc Martens go with a skirt, and how often did we used to play Operation anyway? I need to get out of here.

This alley is nothing, I say, nothing, just a thread in the web between home, school, and the playground where I sit on the swings with my friends Katie and Natasha, sipping MadDog 20/20, laughing so hard that we’ll still feel the cracks decades later. I’m spinning my web outwards, but it’s sticky, like the drink.

FROM THEN TO FOREVER in neon blue. DIRT CHEAP in dirty white. Big capitals on the wall like someone really-meant-business. Splattered red BUTTERFLIES IN MY STOMACH.

Oh god, you can’t be serious, someone has got a window open and is playing “Sunday Girl” really loud. I try to swallow but my throat feels like I’ve grown an Adam’s Apple and it’s choking me. I play the words of the song in my head; I can’t help it—dad used to listen to it all the time. I told him, of course I did, about what mum did here—he and I were sat in the living room one evening, the rain outside so hard it sounded like it would kill spiders, Parallel Lines on the record player, and I said that she used to meet someone, and she might have had an affair. Cold as ice-cream but still as sweet. After dad had left to stay with his brother Jimmy, I screamed at mum that I’d told him and she sat with a fixed stare, as hard as the sky and the sea fused together.

I need a lipstick, should I get Revlon Lustrous Paint the Town Pink, like Lauren in the year above? I like her red chenille jumper, she smells of Impulse and Camel Lights, I want to be like her. Can anyone see me?

The rain is lessening off, so I light another cigarette and cross the courtyard into the alley. The walls are too high for how wide it is, like one of those shipping canals in our Geography Today book, full of new horizons and boats loaded with cargo. Mum used to stand with that man right here in front of this bricked-up arch. I run the tips of my fingers over the brick with the Camel Light still in my hand, where does it end up? I take a long drag and the taste of tobacco mixes with salt and L’Oréal Freestyle hair mousse. Where will I end up?

Maybe I’ll get Katie and Natasha to play Operation later—please take out my butterflies first, sip of MadDog every time you get the buzzer. A few last drops of rain drip off the end of my nose and I blow out circles in short puffs. I can feel the geometry of the alley in my grasp, but I can’t see past the walls yet, because I’m still spun on the inside. Should I get a diffuser attachment for my hairdryer?

Can anyone see me?

 

[(1995, Age 22): …with the slam of the front door behind us, I see Tom search through the sweet haze, panicking to make out a landmark linking him back to the London street we’ve stepped off. But it seems like the walls of the house have folded down flat, and this garden we find ourselves in is expanding out on all sides. Its blanket of leaves covers us, and he takes a breath…]

 

Water on the Knee (1995, Age 22): …there’s no point stopping now. As I march forward, calling for Tom to follow, the garden rolls out in front, and beyond that a valley and a billowing tarpaulin of hills. Silent, we follow a path which keeps to the valley floor, clinging to the right of a river. The further along the valley we go, the hills close in on both sides, until the path turns abruptly, becoming a narrow sheep-track that cuts up the right-hand slope in slow, careful zigzags. We scramble up, running out of breath, until we come out ‘on the top.’ Satisfied, we turn back to look at the house, which is a crumb now on a vast green plate. I plonk myself on the ground, pulling him down and looping my arm through his again, more decisively this time. We rest our heads on the deep-sprung heather and look up through bored clouds. The city streets are spread out in the sky over our heads—the curved concrete of London Zoo’s penguin pool swoops like vapour-trails, the dome of St Paul’s is the white circle of an impatient moon, and buses buzz around like bees.

‘Does this ever stop?’ he asks, gesturing around by flicking his eyes, ‘how far could we walk for?’

—‘I’m not sure, I haven’t got to the edge.’

‘Does anyone else know about it?’ The twitch moves over his face, like a bird crossing the sky.

—‘I don’t think so. Katie and Natasha haven’t said anything.’

‘What… Well, I suppose… Where are we?…’

—‘The garden behind Uncle Jimmy’s cottage, it opens onto the valley. I used to come here all the time with mum and dad, before he found out about her meeting that man in the alleyway…’

His eyes flicker again, and he opens his mouth to speak.

‘But we’re in London, Megan, we’re in Finsbury Park…’

I turn on my side, rest my head on my left hand and put the fingers of my right hand gently over his lips.

—‘Shush,’ I say, smiling, ‘or I’ll smother you up, and if I do it out here, no one will ever find you.’

He laughs, but his eyes are still darting.

*

On the way back we pause at a small stream that crosses our path, running off the hill and feeding into the river. ‘Hang on, let’s stay for a bit, make sure the stream is running OK,’ I say. I bend down, but Tom Boyce, who doesn’t know the boggy ground, kneels at the stream’s edge and wrinkles his nose as damp seeps into his jeans in cold patches. Working together, we dip our hands into the nippy waters, pulling out any large rocks that block the flow, and patting at the silty borders to mould them into firmer walls. Once we’re satisfied, we brush down our hands on our trousers, jump over the stream and make for home.

—‘You seem like you know the stream well,’ he says. ‘You didn’t get your knees wet.’

‘Dad used to say that if we helped it run strong, it would hold our family together in the valley, whatever happened. That made mum smile, like when we played Operation…’

 

Spare Ribs (2010, Age 37): The air’s been knocked out of me, the stuffing is long gone. The courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it sits in the centre of the wide view from my open kitchen window, with the sea behind it. I flip myself up and fold myself over to look at it. From this height and distance, and with the weight of all my stares, I have managed to level the alleyway’s high walls and drain their sour filling into the salty puddle of the ocean. The courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it is now nothing more than a flat page that I gaze down on, and this morning the next chapter of its story dropped through my letterbox—a planning consultation to tear the courtyard down and build a carpark.

The developer’s brochure sits on my desk, and I glance up from its glossy pictures to look at the sea, flat, fused with the sky, and it’s like mum’s stare is back on me, saying never ask me about it. Sparkles on the water’s surface tempt me back to the shiny tarmac I danced over as I waited in the courtyard for her to return… But I focus back on the brochure’s open pages. ‘Go ahead,’ I mutter. ‘Raze it, build whatever you like on it. I’m just going to sit here and watch.’

Copies of Herizons, Bitch, and Bust, the ones with my flat articles about mothers and daughters, are fanned out on the kitchen sideboard, with some old Spare Ribs of mum’s that she’s let me take. On top I can see January’s edition of Ms. with a big red circle on the cover—hanging off the white bar in the middle is the silhouette of a young woman. My name is written in the bottom right corner, No Entry: Megan Bold on closed doorways, and I feel mum smile at me with the pleasure that she used to reserve for when we played Operation. My heart and stomach leap into 3D in my chest, threatening to pump me with air.

Stop, fold myself down, put myself away.

The spare rib she gifted me won’t collapse, it’s sticking out of my chest and holding open the lid of the big oak trunk that I store myself in, the one from her living room that I persuaded her to give me when she moved to the bungalow. All the old games are still inside, apart from Operation, which I think she must have taken with her and put up in the loft.

 

[(1995, Age 22): …me and Tom get back to number 26 as the sun sets in a red circle and sit on the back step eating peas straight from the pod. Tom Boyce fidgets and looks around and then tries to see how far he can throw the empty shells. He’s not saying anything now, just letting out long green breaths, and after a few restless minutes he gets up and strides off. As I hear the front door close the walls of the house pop back up, the valley disappears, and I am back in the living room with Katie and Natasha…]

 

Funny Bone (2016, Age 43): Blown like a kite towards the church, I fly over the floral arrangement that spells out ‘Linda’ in pink and red and land in my pew to sit alone in the front row at mum’s funeral, craning over my shoulder to see who else turns up. The stiff faces are backlit by a winter sun sieved through stained glass.

I gasp.

It’s the nose; he looks like the man who used to meet mum in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, the man who was always wearing his uniform with shiny, round buttons. Blinking, I see a woman, just behind, with the same profile, unmistakeable, like my favourite green triangle in Quality Street. I breathe faster and, as I do, I begin to re-inflate, greedy to suck in new air… I can see at least five people who have the profile—they must be part of a family… am I finally going to find out who it was?

Eyelid twitching, I stand up and start to walk around the church greeting people on my newly puffed-up legs. I want to know who this family is. Right now. ‘Second Cousin,’ says one of the faces, ‘Great Uncle,’ says another. What? This is mum’s family; these are relatives I’ve never met who have crawled out to say their goodbyes or atone themselves for years of staying away. I run my finger along the bridge of my nose, tracing the shape, I don’t have it, mum didn’t have it either. I take in rapid puffs of air. Why didn’t mum just say she was meeting a cousin or an uncle or whatever? Come on mum, why?

It’s so stupid that I start to laugh as though the tiny tweezers from Operation are reaching inside and tickling my funny bone. Come on mum, you’re killing me. My head expands like a soufflé as I gasp in huge lungfuls, and slowly, my fixed expression splits and then my body cracks down the middle through my heart to the ground underneath.

I gasp, tears roll down my cheeks. Can people tell I’m laughing? My hair is falling in my face, but I laugh harder, so hard the ground breaks open, and the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it bursts through, sending tons of concrete flying as it slots back in; I imagine its blocked archway opening up and mum rolling through, towards the red circle. The buzzer sounds. I’m practically on the floor laughing by now, like I used to with Natasha and Katie, laughing so hard I can’t stop. Come on mum, stop it, stop tickling me!

*

At the wake, people eye me as I stalk around studying them, so familiar although we have never met before. So, which of them was she meeting in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard then? ‘Not me,’ they say. ‘Courtyard?’ They raise their brows, innocent-like. ‘Uniform, no never, but you know who?… No, that’s…’ Their glance turns sideways.

I leave early because I want to go to mum’s bungalow and get to the bottom of this. Right now. I take the spare key from under the loose brick in the driveway, open the door, and climb up the ladder into the loft, digging through piles of Ruth Rendell thrillers, old letters, and beaten-up maths textbooks with names like Hess and Fletcher that sound more like spy stories. Finally, I find a Laura Ashley carrier bag wedged under the eaves. Inside, along with mum’s old copy of Operation, is a photo album wrapped up in some paisley curtains. I start to flick through it.

 

[1995, Age 22: …‘What happened?’ Katie asks, offering me her last Camel Light while running her other hand through curly auburn hair, which she dries every morning with a diffuser. ‘Where has Tom gone?’

I shrug.

‘I’ll go to the corner shop.’ She’s looking at Natasha with a frown and motioning at the cream telephone on the sideboard. ‘I need to get another pack of cigarettes, and I’ll get us some wine.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Natasha, standing up and pulling her dead-straight blonde hair into a knot with such determination she winces. She mumbles something to Katie and they nod at each other. ‘Everyone OK with white?’—but it isn’t a question. And they look at me, still frowning, but trying to smile…

By the time they get back, I am laid out on the floor, as flat as paper…]

 

Broken Heart (2056, Age 83): Maycroft Manor care home and I’m playing Operation on my own in my unit, like I do most days.

I am neither flat-packed, nor blowing up. I no longer use hair mousse and I only go out in the rain when someone is on hand to help me back inside if my mobility device malfunctions. Most importantly, I know, I am absolutely certain, that the MM-Assistants (I still call them nurses) can see me. They can see me in front of them, and they can see me on all the little screens that are in the Maycroft Manor control room, where they monitor my ‘machine’ that administers drugs and shocks as and when I need them. I know they can see me because they flash ‘yes’ when I ask them if today is Wednesday and ‘no’ when I say that I’d like to go down to the seafront. They look at me blankly when I pick up the little pincers and so I turn to them and explain, ‘the red nose lights up so you know when you make a mistake; you should understand.’ They’re renderings, of course, with identical bobbed hairstyles, and they communicate in binary—red circle for no, or ‘incorrect,’ white circle for yes; it’s all in the pupils. The manager explained that he programs them this way because policy states that healthcare contexts should seek to eliminate grey areas, but I know that the more advanced software is too expensive.

Looking at memories from above, replaying stories, making connections so there’s never an ending, isn’t that what people do when they get older? Testing the steadiness of my hand, I remove Adam’s Apple first, and then, still dialling in my touch, the Ankle Bone’s Connected to the Knee Bone next. It’s the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it that I’m looking down on under harsh spotlights because I’m sure that’s where the illness has always lain. My memories are scattered around it—Wishbone, Butterflies in Stomach, Water-on-the-Knee, Spare Ribs, and Funny Bone. I extract them one-by-one, to be reviewed, restored, reconnected, and rebooted. They are alive and pulsing.

A dog-eared photo, out of place and eerie in this world of emojis, screens, and invisible waves, watches the procedure alongside me, propped up like the other crumpling residents in the neighbouring units here at Maycroft Manor. I found this photo in the loft, after the wake. Written on the back, it says: Mr J Lawley & Linda Lawley, Eastbourne, 1942. It’s a photo of mum, just a little girl, with her father, Jack. The scene is unmistakeable—they are standing in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, in front of the bricked-up arch. The camera catches his profile—family nose, Quality Street green triangle. He’s wearing his policeman’s uniform with shiny brass buttons, just like I remember.

According to the Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Jack died two years later when mum was only seven, driven off the road by a speeding ambulance in the middle of a blackout.

I reach to retrieve the Broken Heart but my hand twitches and the buzzer sounds.

Bzzzzz. She kept going back there for a shadow. Like I kept going back to the stream in the valley, stuck, Age 22. Play again.

Bzzzzz. The alleyway-off-the-courtyard was a misconnection. A point where the wrong cargoes were spliced with the wrong horizons, a bad join where carefully packed memories and wishes leaked out.

Pass me the tweezers again please, Nurse, I’ve got to get this out.

Bzzzz. Bzzzz.

The Broken Heart is stubborn. Alarms going off, red circles flashing.

 

[1995, Age 22: …so, Katie and Natasha decide to fold me into an airplane and launch me back to my mother by the sea, flying high above the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, which cuts like the stream in the valley, but keeping everything apart instead of together. I dive down and then level off and drift in gently through the window of my mother’s living room, landing on top of the large oak trunk.

A love letter sent to the wrong address.]

pencil

Sophy Bristow is a writer living in Cambridgeshire in the UK. She has been shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize and has published flash and poetry in a few places including Lighthouse Literary Journal, From Glasgow to Saturn and Fenacular. She is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Email: sophy.bristow[at]gmail.com

The Red Balloon

Fiction
Elisse Sophie Ahmet


Photo Credit: Lydia Brooks/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The young toddler loosely strapped into the navy blue pushchair was a pale boy of two. His fine mop of straight, sunshine blond hair was cut into a bowl shape that skimmed the long lashes of his almond-shaped eyes, which were flecked with shards of green. When he let go of the red balloon tied to the yellow stick that he was, until moments ago, still holding, those almond eyes widened to the size of large, unshelled walnuts. He began to wail.

“Oh no,” Eve said.

She moved around in front of the boy and crouched down to his level. The wind pushed her hair across her face and a few strands found their way into her mouth. She spat them back out again.

“Mummy doesn’t like it when Emil cries his big, ploppy tears.”

For once, Emil had slept through the night. Even more surprising, he was in a good mood. Pushing the pushchair to the Broadway Centre took about thirty-five minutes, and was mostly uphill. Now she was returning, pushchair laden with bulging shopping bags, Eve was sweating. Emil chomped through his floppy salty chips noisily. At least she didn’t have to think about the cat anymore. She was secretly glad when it ran away.

Her son’s face was a puce ball of furrows and folds and not for the first time did Eve wish she could hit him. She stood and assessed her surroundings. The golden M logo on the curved red plastic was still visible as the balloon bounced down the embankment of the dual carriageway. She looked from one side of the bridge to the other. Vehicles shot past and the structure wobbled slightly as they whipped underneath, vibrating through her legs. That was the reason they had come this way; Emil liked to wave to the lorry drivers, and Eve did anything that would stop Emil crying for a God-Forsaken-Second.

The balloon was slowly making its way towards the bottom of the bank until a gust of wind blew it directly in the path of a blue car. The driver was startled and honked their horn loudly. Eve’s heart paused. Emil tugged at her floral skirt and screamed at the top of his lungs.

“Okay darling don’t cry, please don’t cry.”

He pointed over and over again at the direction the balloon had taken. It had been free with the purchase of the meal he had smeared into his hair. A remnant of ketchup smudged across his right cheek near his ear. In his left hand, he clutched the toy unearthed from the cardboard box.

“Shush now sweetheart, we’ll go back soon and get you another one.”

A lorry pressed down on its horn. Eve jolted up in time to see the balloon dance furiously into the air and back onto the embankment. It jumped about on its stick a few inches as Emil wriggled out of his pushchair. He poked his arms through the bridge’s cold, grey railings. Eve snatched him towards her chest.

“What have I told you about getting out of that chair?”

His scream pierced her. He flapped his hands in her face and managed to scratch her eye as he squirmed to be let free. She dropped him with a thud and his arm hit the pushchair, which began to roll backwards down from the middle of the curved bridge. Eve swore.

When Emil was placed in her arms for the first time, he wriggled uncomfortably until Adem took him away. After that, Eve fell into a fitful sleep. When she woke sometime later, a matronly Black nurse handed over a plate of buttered toast and tea. She salivated remembering ripping up chunks of the warm, scratchy bread with her teeth.

Tyres skidded. The balloon was in the road again. It bobbed about and rested on the railing nearest to them. Eve scuttled over to the pushchair, which had rolled back to the entrance of the bridge and fallen over with the weight of the shopping.

“Stay there,” she turned and warned Emil. He froze on the spot.

Eve felt her chest; her nipples still cried milky tears when he mewled. Emil loved breastfeeding so much that she’d allowed him to carry on way longer than anyone recommended. She put a stop to it only when one of the other mothers made a dirty joke as she dropped Lina off at nursery. That morning, her daughter had gone in again without a fuss. Eve was starting to suspect Lina preferred to be there than at home.

Eve picked the pushchair up and scrambled to retrieve the melon that had rolled from her shopping bags, as well as the Kinder Egg she had bought for her daughter.

“Emil, look,” she called out. Emil was still frozen in his place. “Mummy has a surprise for you.” She rattled the Kinder Egg. As Emil approached, a loud sound shocked him into jerking his head towards the railings again. He could see the balloon in the road. He pointed and repeated his desire to have it back.

What was everyone at LINPAC doing while her son screamed and screamed at her? Friday afternoon; they were probably half cut from the small plastic cups of bagged white wine Joyce distributed. Working through a haze of alcohol until 5:30pm rolled around and they all left en masse for the George Arms.

Emil toddled towards Eve as she rebalanced all the bags on the pushchair. Behind her was a quiet street with a row of houses shielded by the tall trees. The embankment absorbed much of the sound and fumes from the violence of the road below. Before he reached her, Emil found the gap between the street and the bridge’s entrance and began to crawl through it to get onto the embankment. Eve immediately abandoned the pushchair, dropped the bags, and ran to where he was so fast she tripped on her foot. Her face smashed into the ground.

“Emil!” she screamed through the blood dripping from her mouth.

A third of her tooth was on the ground and another part of it was embedded in her bottom lip. She untangled her limbs and pushed through the small opening Emil had crawled through. Sliding on autumn’s orange and red leaves, grabbing handfuls of grainy dirt and broken beer bottles, she tugged at the back of the boy’s shirt, pulling him backwards with a severe jolt. He screamed.

She clutched Emil so tightly he squawked from the pain of it. Blood from her lip dropped onto his light blue coat. He managed still to blubber and sob about the balloon.

“For Chris’sake,” she hissed. “Will you stop crying if I go get it?”

Emil nodded through his tears.

“Then you have to wait here. Do. Not. Move. I mean it, young man. Stay here. Understood?”

He nodded again.

Eve backed down the embankment keeping her eyes fixed on Emil. He had stopped crying but kept his bottom lip upturned ready to begin again at any moment.

Eve’s foot slipped and she fell forward. She slid on her front further down the muddy hill. Something thorny embedded itself into her leg through her floral skirt and her lip throbbed with heat. She was nearly at the bottom. Emil looked on, sucking his thumb and rubbing his ear, which he did whenever he was sleepy. He was due a nap when they got back, Eve remembered now. She could hear him humming a tune from one of his cartoons. Pingu? Her foot reached the road. No, Thomas the Tank Engine.

Any moment now she expected to hear a crash. She couldn’t be sure if the cars were honking at her—the woman scrambling down the embankment—or the balloon, which belligerently moved across their eyelines without popping.

“Stay there. Do not move, Emil. I mean it,” she warned again from the bottom of the embankment. Her voice was carried away by the cars and lorries as they shot past. She turned away from him to see where the balloon was: the middle of the asphalt.

She climbed over the grey guard rail and the wind slapped her hard in the face. A purple sports car raced past, fluttering her skirt in its direction. She looked down the looming stretch of road. In the distance she could make out the hotel where she and Adem had their wedding reception. On the other side of the road, a field full of teenage boys from the school it was attached to. They were playing football, or hockey—she couldn’t quite see. Another car came over the edge of her line of vision. It was there and then it was gone in a matter of seconds. The balloon danced closer to her and she looked from it to where she stood, calculating how many steps it was. Maybe seven, eight? She could make it across the road and back if she bolted when it was clear. Eve turned back to check that Emil was still where she had left him. He was. The pushchair too, was where she had left it. If she was quick, they could get back in time for Emil to watch Thomas the Tank Engine before his nap. Ringo was always her favourite. She knew there were people who said that for attention, to be different, but she really meant it. His voice was so soothing. She often drifted off as Emil babbled along to his narration.

The sky had clouded over. A droplet of rain kissed her cheek. She had to be quick, Emil would catch a cold if she wasn’t careful. Lina needed picking up soon. The washing wouldn’t do itself.

She turned to wave at her son. And then she stepped out into the road.

pencil

Elisse Sophia Ahmet is a 32-year-old freelance creative copywriter of British and Turkish Cypriot heritage. Born and bred in London, she is interested in women’s stories, particularly feminine performance, identity, and motherhood. Her work has been published by Litro, Between the Lines, and Lucent Dreaming. She has a master’s with distinction in creative writing from Royal Holloway and is working on her first novel, The Other Side of the Island, an intergenerational drama spanning seven decades in the lives of three British Turkish Cypriot women—a grandmother, mother and daughter. Set against London’s racial, cultural and historical tapestry, it interrogates the connection between motherhood and mental illness, identity, and the legacies of trauma born from displacement. Email: elisseahmet[at]gmail.com

Broken Bridge

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
DJ Tyrer


Photo Credit: Neil Moralee/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

George blessed the storm. For most folk in Cumbria, it was a disaster, but for him and Bill it was a source of riches. The two of them sat in the cab of the rented van, wrapped up against the winter chill. Rain lashed against the windscreen, making visibility poor in the early-morning light.

The white van ploughed a furrow through the flooded lane, past the ‘Road Closed’ sign, sending waves sloshing over the hedgerows before the waters crashed back down behind them and rippled back into stillness. Overhead, the sky was a slate grey. Dark clouds glowered on the horizon, threatening worse: Most people were hoping they held snow that would fall upon the higher ground and offer the sodden county some respite, but they were hoping otherwise. The longer the rains fell, the more villages they could loot.

“Remember,” said George, glancing at Bill, “just take small things—jewellery, electronic gadgets, that sort of thing. Stuff you can hide in your clothes. If someone spots you hauling a widescreen TV down the street, they’ll know you’re up to something.”

“I ain’t stupid,” Bill replied.

George didn’t bother to correct him.

They were almost at their destination. The village had been evacuated after the bridge connecting its two halves had collapsed into the white, frothing torrent that had replaced its usually docile river.

“You sure it’s safe?” Bill asked, clutching the dashboard, as the van splashed down towards the cluster of houses, the water rising up its doors and dribbling in about their feet.

“’Course it is.” George slowed to a crawl, no longer able to discern what hazards the water might conceal.

“That’s odd,” Bill said, after a moment, pointing.

“What is?”

“The bridge.”

“What about it?” George was more concerned with keeping the van on the road.

“Look at it: it looks as if it exploded. There are chunks of it all over the shore.”

“That’s the force of the water for you,” George replied as he parked the van in a shallower area of water. “Right, let’s get out there and fill up. Come on.”

“Gah, it’s freezing,” Bill exclaimed as he climbed down into the water.

“Keep your mind on the prize.”

“Will do.”

They had to clamber over the sandbags that were piled up in the doorways of houses. While intended to keep homes dry, they had been overwhelmed by the rising waters and now served to dam the waters in. The various knickknacks and household items that made a house a home floated on the pooled waters. Even heavy pieces of furniture—tables and fallen shelving units—floated about like so much driftwood. There was a stink of sewage in the air.

They climbed the stairs. The homeowners had carried up as much as they could of value, conveniently laying the goods out for them to pick over. Finishing with them, they proceeded to grub through the bedroom drawers. Anything of worth was slipped into the many voluminous pockets of the coats they wore.

“Good haul,” George commented with a grin as they headed back down the stairs. Suddenly, he paused and put a hand on Bill’s shoulder. “What was that?”

“What was what?”

“I thought I heard…”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

They were silent a moment. It was unlikely any rescue workers would be about, but it paid to be careful.

“Nah, it was probably nothing,” decided George and they continued on their way.

After a few houses, having picked them clean of trinkets of any value, the two men trudged back to the van and divested themselves of the objects stuffed into their pockets. In the back were a number of plastic bins, allowing them to sort the items by type. Then, they waded off down the street to the next set of houses.

“Hey, this one looks as if something crashed into it,” Bill said, gesturing towards one building that had been halved in size.

“Probably the water caused it to collapse,” said George as they went inside and began to look about the ruins. He sighed, annoyed. “I don’t think we’re going to find anything here. It’s too much of a wreck. Let’s move onto the next one.”

They climbed back down the piled rubble and began to splash their way along the street.

Suddenly, they were bowled over as the building just ahead of them exploded apart as if it had been struck by an artillery shell. It happened so fast, they didn’t register whether it was the blast or the wave that caught them. They plunged beneath the filthy, frigid waters. Then, they broke the surface, spluttering in terror and confusion.

“Help!” shrieked Bill. “I can’t swim!”

“Shut it, you muppet. It’s not that deep; you can stand.” George helped him to his feet, then looked about and said, “What the hell just happened?”

Bill just shook his head.

“Houses collapse inwards,” said George. “They don’t explode outwards.”

“Didn’t the news say something about the risk of a gas explosion?”

“They’ve turned it off. I doubt it’s that.”

“Then what was it?”

They were interrupted by the splash of an oar and a voice demanding, “What are you doing here? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?” A man in a kayak was paddling towards them along the flooded street.

“Just checking on our house,” George lied, easily.

“You’re not from around here,” the man countered. If he were a local, he probably knew his neighbours by sight.

“I meant our aunt’s place. She got out ahead of the flood, so we thought we’d best check how it was.”

“Really?” The man was silent for a moment, then said, “Still, whatever you’re doing here, it’s dangerous. Especially if you’re motives aren’t entirely pure.”

George ignored that last jibe and said, “Sure, I can see that: That house just collapsed.”

The kayaker laughed. “Collapsed. Yeah.”

Soaked through and feeling frozen, George found the man’s tone irked him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just that it’s dangerous here.”

“No, come on, what do you mean?”

“Just that you really ought to get out of here, assuming you want to live.”

Although Bill shifted nervously, sending ripples out across the waist-deep water, George snorted and said, “Really? Is that meant to be a threat, or are you talking about the weather, ’cause the forecast says we won’t get another band of heavy rain till this evening. Things aren’t going to get any worse.”

“Floodwaters are the least of our concern.”

“Come on,” said George, turning to go and gesturing for Bill to follow him. “Man’s a loony.”

“Evil has been set free here,” the man called after them.

“Loony.”

There was the crash of another house being torn apart.

“Best get out of here,” George muttered. “The flood must be getting worse, after all.”

Then, they stopped dead, staring in horror. Something large and black loomed into view, having just crashed through another building. Brickwork tumbled off it as if shrugged away and water ran off it in rivulets. The size of a hill, they could barely comprehend its form: it had bulk and they had the impression of numerous legs, but beyond that it might have been a shapeless mass.

Bill swore. George gave a shriek.

“What is it?” Bill demanded as they continued to stare.

“Evil,” called the man in the kayak from behind them, maintaining his distance.

The thing began to turn towards them.

“Run!” shouted George, pulling at Bill’s shoulder.

The kayaker was already paddling swiftly away. Between waist and chest deep in the water, George and Bill could barely make much speed at all.

Behind them, the enormous bulk lumbered slowly but steadily after them. They attempted to pick up speed, but fear could only achieve so much.

“This way,” called the kayaker, turning down a side street. They followed as best they could.

“What is it?” George shouted after him.

“Evil—bound here for six-hundred winters within the bridge. When the floodwaters tore the bridge away, it was freed once more. You need to leave this place, if you want to live.”

“Back to the van,” said George.

Unfortunately, their only means of escape lay past the creature that threatened them.

There were more crashes, more houses being destroyed, as it headed towards them.

Clambering over rubble, they slipped around it and, finally, returned to the van. The man in the kayak was bobbing close by.

“You should hide,” he said. “If you leave now, it will follow your van. It might come for you, anyway—evil calls for evil. But, there is a chance: my grandmother taught me the old chants that bound it. I’ll try to bind it once again, if I can. You should be able to escape then, whatever happens. If I fail, perhaps the wind will change direction and blow in some truly-icy Siberian air. Maybe that will freeze it in the waters long enough that I can find a way to deal with it, or someone else can.”

“Well, I’m not hanging around to find out,” said George, climbing into the driver’s seat. He looked at Bill who was hesitating at the passenger door. “You okay?”

“I didn’t want to come,” he replied. “I’m going to find somewhere to hide.” With all the rubble about, there were plenty of options and he quickly jogged off to secrete himself. It was a wise move.

George decided not to wait. Leave the kayaker to his crazy plan, he decided; he turned the key. The van didn’t start. He swore.

The waters shook about him and he tried again, but still there was nothing.

Then, an enormous leg like a pillar of slick, black stone came down immediately in front of the van. A moment later, its twin crashed down upon its roof. George didn’t have the opportunity to register what had happened. He was dead.

Bill trembled where he hid. He was certain it was getting colder, that winter was here with a ferocity. He wasn’t sure where the man in the kayak had gone, but he could hear him declaiming loudly somewhere within the confines of the devastated village. Bill wondered if it were possible for the man to bind the thing as he said his ancestors had. He had a horrible feeling they would all die together in this godforsaken place.

Chill winds blew in and the voice of the man rose in pitch as he cried out again and again for the thing that had escaped the bridge to obey his words. But, wondered Bill, what was there to bind it within?

Maybe, Bill thought, if it followed the man, he might have a chance to get away.

Perhaps, with the temperature dropping, they would all die here of the chill. Bill certainly felt as if he might.

It was growing nearer.

Bill made up his mind. He started to run.

He might just make it, he thought.

He heard the pillar-like legs crash down into the water just behind him, sending up a spray that fell upon him like stinging darts of rain.

He didn’t make it.

Something seized him by the waist and he felt himself being raised up into the air. For a brief moment, Bill got a clear view of the devastation wrought upon the village. His final thought was to wonder if they had deserved their fate, as the man had implied: was this all some hideous punishment? Then, he ceased to wonder: He was dead.

The rain continued to fall and, slowly, the floodwaters continued to rise, the weather indifferent to the horror it had released.

pencil

DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), All The Petty Myths (18th Wall), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories (Hellbound Books), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hypnos, Occult Detective Magazine, parABnormal, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor). Facebook. Email: djtyrer[at]hotmail.co.uk

Cutting Your Own

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Bunny McFadden


Photo Credit: Robert Linsdell/Flickr (CC-by)

The red velvety rope steadied me as I trekked down the path, dragging my borrowed saw through the day-old snow. Through the perfect rows of tiny trees, I could see my children dashing. We’d never find the perfect tree in time, I worried, biting at my winter-chapped lips. And it had to be perfect this year since we’d be alone.

“Mama, that one’s so cute!” Valeria pointed excitedly at a hobbled tree, one even smaller than the rest of the miniatures. Her coat sleeve rode up on her wrist. They grew so fast. Next week marked halfway through kindergarten.

“Eww, that one’s ugly and short, just like you!” Aléjandro poked his head between the branches of the next row, his shaggy brown hair hanging over his eyes. A few sprinkles of snow began to gather on his cap.

“They’re all short, Alé!” Valeria snapped.

“Enough, I don’t want to hear it,” I could hear myself say. I sounded just like my mother. A shudder ran through me. I was beginning to think the miniature tree farm was a mistake. It sounded so picturesque when I saw the flyer sticking out of Valeria’s binder last week.

“Cut Your Own!” it read in mottled photocopied letters. A garish cartoon of an evergreen was crookedly drawn in the middle. At the bottom was an address on an unfamiliar road, but when I looked it up, it was only an hour from home.

“Let’s hurry up so we can get hot chocolate,” I called, but the kids were already past hearing distance. The rows of trees were neat, almost like desks in an empty classroom. If it weren’t for the snow that had begun to fall in earnest, I could see the end of the path and the little hut at the entrance. The conifers were just tall enough that I couldn’t see the kids, but I could hear them fighting. I stood alone in the row of miniatures.

I picked a rotten day to cut down a tree.

Last Christmas was so different. We took a plane to see Jeremy’s parents in Florida. It was the kids’ first time flying, and even on the tiny seats their little legs swung without touching the floor. I spent Christmas Day on the beach, reading for fun while the kids played with the waves. And then it was January and the bottles kept piling up and the conspiracies kept piling up and the snow kept piling up until I couldn’t take it anymore.

Substitute teachers don’t make a lot of money, and the district only paid me once a month, so when the eagle finally landed I bundled up Valeria and bribed Alé with screen time. The tree farm was in Edgewood, not too far of a drive. We didn’t really have the space for a full tree anyway, and most of our old Christmas stuff was in storage till I got the court things settled. “A mini tree will be perfect,” I kept saying to the kids. Small isn’t bad for now. Like I said about the rental. Like I said about the used car. Like I told Valeria when she complained her coat didn’t fit this morning.

Down the aisle, a hunched figure appeared. I turned my attention to the nearest pine, dabbing at the tear starting to chill my cheek. I wasn’t really in the cheerful spirit you have to be to say “Merry Christmas” without scaring someone half to death.

Each tree had a tag fluttering in the snowy wind. I reached out and turned this one over, trying to look busy. The tree was knee-high, so I had to crouch down to get a better look, leaning on the saw like a crutch. In blood red script on the tag was the word Noel. It was tied with a red thread. The name set off a dozen memories of late-night fights and printed police reports that Jeremy kept trying to get me to read. Common name, I told myself.

The stranger was beside me now, speaking. I straightened up, accidentally pulling the tag off. Embarrassed, I slipped it into my pocket.

“I said, did you find what you were looking for, mija?” the withered old lady smiled, revealing eggshell-white teeth. She gestured down at the tree from under her black wool cloak. The tree bent away in a gust of wind, brushing my leg.

“I think so,” I answered. The saw I’d borrowed from the neighbor down the hall suddenly felt heavy in my mittened hand. “Well, aren’t you going to cut it?” the crone said, almost urgently.

I bent down, reaching over the velvet ropes that separated the aisles, and put the saw to the bark, scraping it once. The sound made me wince. It hit me that I hadn’t seen my kids in a few minutes, but it would be rude to stop cutting the tree now…

“You know, I have to check with my daughter first. She’s the picky one,” I explained, setting down the handsaw against the rope. The withered woman frowned. Her black eyes narrowed at me.

“Better hurry before you get snowed in,” she warned.

I looked down at the ground. The snow at my feet was growing. She was right. I squeezed the tag in my pocket nervously.

The old lady began hobbling on stilted legs back toward the hut at the entrance. I couldn’t even see the headlights of cars on the road; the storm was getting worse. I looked down at the tree again.

“Mama!”

The shout sounded far off, muffled. I dropped the saw and spun, looking over the tops of the small trees. Something didn’t feel right. Maybe I needed something sweet; my blood sugar felt like it was dipping. “Valeria? Alé? Alejandro, you get back here right now,” I said, my voice rising. “Valeria?” These kids never listened to me.

The red velvet ropes along the aisle swung in the sharp wind. The strings of vintage Christmas bulbs above were unlit. Who puts together a Christmas tree farm and doesn’t even bother lighting the place? I ripped off my mitten and dug in my deep coat pocket for my phone or a snack, but I must have left everything in the car. Instead, I felt my fingers curl around paper. I pulled the tag out. It had gotten wet with snow; the red ink had bled and I could barely read it.

The kids were probably fed up with our adventure. The car was unlocked; they were probably in there, fighting over Alé’s phone. “He better not run out of data,” I thought to myself as the snow stung my face. This tree would have to do. I’d marked it, but I needed to do something about my blood sugar before I could finish.

It was getting darker by the minute, and they still hadn’t turned on the lights. I walked against the wind, holding the velvety ropes that separated the path from the trees. After what felt like forever, I was at the thin red door to the hut. It was the size of a garden shed; the window was on the other side, and I could see the edge of the chalkboard price sign. I knocked, mittens in hand.

“Mama,” I heard again. This time, the voice was much closer, and it was not one of mine. I could tell. Was there someone in the hut? I tried the handle; the brass was immovable but hot to the touch.

“Hello?” I shouted above the whistling wind. “Hello?

Suddenly the door opened a crack and the crone’s black eye was there. I couldn’t see behind her; she filled the frame of the door completely. Had she grown taller?

“Have you chosen, then?” the woman asked, her wrinkled mouth almost immobile.

I nodded my head. “Do I pay first?” I asked, handing her the tag.

She snatched it from my hand, looking down at the lettering. “Yes, yes, whatever price you think is right,” she told me, her black eyes glittering. She reached inside and grabbed a ceramic piggy bank shaped like Santa. That was a little strange. I couldn’t remember the price of a tree. My brain felt sluggish. I needed to eat something, and soon. I dug out a twenty from my pocket.

“Is that enough?”

She gestured silently to the ceramic figure in her hands. Instead of the familiar suit with black and gold buttons, this Santa was wearing a red robe that draped over his face. His arms were crossed in front, the sleeves meeting at their opening, and the slot for coins was right below the tip of his pointed white beard. I folded the bill and slid it in. A dozen Christmas lights flickered on behind me, their vintage bulbs burning brightly and illuminating the woman’s face.

“Would you like to come in for a cup of cocoa,” the withered woman asked, and I could see a loneliness in her face that hadn’t been there before.

“Sure,” I said after a moment, stepping into the tiny hut. An ancient radiator was plugged into the wall, and there was no sink or microwave. Everything sat on a small green card table. In the same outlet, there was a cord that led to a single electric kettle that looked like it was straight from the eighties. The withered woman reached into a box under the little card table and set out two plain mugs. “Cold day, isn’t it,” she said. I nodded politely, rubbing my hands together. There was a metal folding chair leaning against the wall; I maneuvered over to it and pulled at its rusty hinges.

“So, where’s the husband,” the woman asked as she clattered an ancient-looking can of cocoa powder around on the card table.

“Oh, it’s just me these days,” I replied.

I lost myself in thought for a moment, remembering the way Jeremy used to fish out his marshmallows for the kids to share any time we had hot chocolate together. Before he started thinking the neighbors were kidnapping children. Before he drunkenly accused one as she dragged out her trash cans in the wee hours of the morning.

The kettle whistled and snapped me back to the little hut. I could almost feel my hands again.

“Thank you for the cocoa,” I said politely, smelling the watery mess in my mug. I took a sip and nearly choked. It was unexpectedly spicy but better than I’d expected.

“Of course. A bit of chile powder, like my mother used to use,” she said. “That’s how they would make it back in my day. A bit of chile powder. Since the Mayans, you know. That’s the secret.”

I took another sip.

“That, and the blood.”

I didn’t have a moment to react to this; someone under the table enveloped my legs and I screeched, jumping halfway out of my seat. It was Valeria. “Mom, can we go?” she said, looking up at me, her voice muffled from under the table. “I’m cold.”

“How did you even get in here? Go wait in the car,” I said. “It shouldn’t take too long. Maybe Alé will help me cut our tree.”

“No!” the woman shouted. I’d almost forgotten she was there. She hustled us out of the hut, slamming the door behind her. I hadn’t even had time to put my mittens back on. She gripped my elbow tightly, her fingers like claws locked around my flesh. “You must do it alone.” Valeria shrunk behind me, hugging my legs tight.

“Sorry, she’s a little shy around strangers,” I explained. The woman’s tone changed. She smiled down at my daughter, her white teeth glinting.

“Quiet as a Christmas tree,” she said, beaming down at Valeria.

I turned to my daughter and put my hand on her shoulder. “I’ll be right there, I promise. It won’t take me long.” She pouted and silently turned toward the dark lot where our car was parked. It was annoying that I had to do it alone, but I understood. There were so many laws about child safety these days. That was something Jeremy never understood when he would go off on those long rants about stolen children. The world wasn’t like that anymore. Maybe when we were growing up, but everybody had phones these days. It was another thing we’d argued about, and he didn’t let up even after we got Alé his own cheap cell.

The snow and wind had stopped and the air was still. The sun wasn’t out anymore, but the Christmas lights illuminated the long aisles of miniature trees. I returned down the center path toward the one I’d chosen, the woman walking behind me. When we reached mine, she deftly lifted the red velvety rope to make the trunk accessible.

Even in the calm, the needles seemed to shimmy.

“What did I do with the saw?” I asked, searching around. I left it right here, but it must have gotten covered with snow. I couldn’t even see our footprints from earlier, just mine and the owner’s, stretching back to the hut at the entrance. I crouched to look under the tree and saw a puddle of something sticky.

“Mama,” someone screamed in my ear. The sound made me fall back, my unmittened palms pressing into the snow. With my head next to the tree, I could smell it now. Blood. A scream rose in my throat.

The saw mark I’d made in the little trunk was bleeding. The puddle grew, turning the snow around the tree sticky with black blood. The smell was unmistakable, even to my frozen nose.

“What the hell,” I whispered, pushing myself back into a seated position.

The woman was suddenly above me, her eyes glowing unnaturally. Her smile had turned to a strange grimace. The wind tore at her black wool coat. Through the flapping fabric, I could smell a rot that bit at my cold nose above the smell of fresh blood from the tree. The lights flickered above me.

“Don’t say that in vain,” she snapped, her eyes growing blacker. She stretched out above me, filling the sky. The scream that was lodged in my throat shook itself loose now.

The withered woman reached out her arms and I saw feathers under her coat. She was transforming in front of me, growing taller. Little black barbs ballooned under her skin, erupting into feathers that sprang out wet and reddish black. She shook in front of me, wagging the feathers and sprinkling me with her blood.

For a moment more, I was frozen in horror, trapped under the giant bird-woman.

Mama!” I heard. Looking between the legs of the creature I saw Alé and Valeria there at the end of the aisle, screaming.

I kicked at the creature’s strange long legs, feeling guilty for a moment when I saw her falling, but it was too late. I turned and ran through the snow, away from the tree, away from the woman. The snow flurried around me, but I couldn’t stop. I yanked my children up, holding them under my arms as I skidded over the icy path to the car. Behind me, the snow flurried. A shadow lifted into the sky. The bird-woman rose into the air and flew at us with demonic speed. I reached the door of my car and threw the children in, clawing the door shut behind us. “Lock the doors!” I screeched, and my voice sounded like it belonged to someone else. We scrambled around, snapping the locks into place.

The creature slammed on our hood, dragging her claws deep into the thick metal. I fumbled in my pocket for the keys. Alé and Valeria screamed, clutching each other in the passenger seat. In front of us, the creature screeched, her beak opening to reveal an endless throat.

I made the sign of the cross and turned on the ignition. The headlights flashed on, and she was gone. A flurry of white snow passed in front of us, covering the claw marks in the hood. The engine sputtered for a moment, then whined in submission.

When we got home, the marks were gone.

We went with a plastic tree that year, in the end.

pencil

Dr. Bunny McFadden (she/they) is a Chicana mother who tinkers with words for a living. Email: bunny.the.bookworm[at]gmail.com

Rules

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
Gail A. Webber


Photo Credit: Adam Buzzo/Flickr (CC-by)

I looked down at my boots, trying not to shuffle while a cold wind blew between us.

My grandfather seemed like a giant standing over me, a giant who was shaking his finger at me. In his other hand, he held the rabbit that two minutes ago I was so proud to have shot. “We only hunt rabbits in winter, Narina.” He leaned closer, and though I couldn’t see him, I felt him get closer and imagined him drawing his grizzled eyebrows together. I’d seen it enough times before. “They carry a sickness in the warm months. It makes people real sick.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, registering the new rule: Wait until winter to kill rabbits. Rules had always made me feel safe, even if breaking them meant I’d get punished. But since punishments hadn’t lasted too long or hurt too much in the past, they just reminded me to be more careful. To think before I decided to do something. What scared me lately about rules was that the older I got, the worse punishments seemed to be getting for the same violations.

…like standing in the corner facing the wall for twenty-four whole hours with one of them always watching to make sure I didn’t move.

Rules. I’d learned some early: Don’t talk back. Never lie. Do your chores. Take your punishment. Others came later: Tell me if you see a strange person. Never go outside without your knife. Gut your kill in the field. Stay out the meat shed. I was eleven years old and had quite a long list to remember.

The first time Granddad gave me the rule about seeing a strange person, I was confused. From when I was really little, Gramma had read me stories about the long-ago-people in the Bible, but I’d never seen another human besides us. I thought we were the only people left, but the rule about strange people meant we weren’t. That was when I first started to wonder about other things I’d been told, whether they were true or not, but I trusted my grandparents then, and knew better than to ask for more information than they offered.

Even with my head down, I could tell Granddad was still looking at me funny. “Did you hear me, Narina?”

“Yes, sir.” I tried to be obedient—I liked how they treated me when I obeyed. But how could he expect me to obey the rule about killing rabbits when I didn’t know about it? It wasn’t fair. The whole concept of fair and not fair consequences was something I’d only recently thought up, but I knew it was right.

As for that day, I didn’t think I had done one thing wrong.

I had awakened before Gramma called me. That was unusual because I’d been having more trouble getting awake lately and Gramma said it was because I was growing up. That made no sense because Gramma and Granddad were already grown and they always got up really early.

Anyway, I’d been having a dream about running, racing a deer faster and farther than I’d ever been. When the deer jumped into a river, I followed it in, still chasing. The dizzy excited feeling the dream gave me didn’t fade like most dreams did when I sat up, and my excitement mounted as I thought about the river. I had been warned about the river.

I could go as far as I chose in three directions from our cabin. Only one direction was forbidden to me, and I was never to go that way. Not hunting, not hiking, and not for any other reason. Granddad said the river was in that direction, beyond our fields and beyond our forest, and that it was dangerous for me to even look at. He told me if I ever got lost and found myself near it, I was to close my eyes until I’d put my back to it and then hurry home as fast as I could.

I couldn’t help wondering if “beyond the river” might be where Granddad’s strange people lived, if they existed at all. I fantasized about what they might look like, made up reasons why we never tried to see them, and why I should be afraid.

But nobody said I couldn’t dream about them—a person can’t control her dreams—and maybe the dream would come back.

My insides felt all jumpy that morning. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t go slow. I needed to do something, so I got my knife from the table beside my bed, crept downstairs real quiet, and grabbed the .22 rifle by the back door. Then I ran to the place where our fields meet the woods.

After I shot a fat rabbit, I gutted it right away, just like I was supposed to, and ran back home fast. The proof was that blood was still dripping from the carcass Granddad had taken from me. I wanted to look at his face, but was afraid what I would see.

It’s not fair. I didn’t know.

I swallowed down a sigh and waited to find out what my punishment would be this time.

“So, this is the right thing done the right way.” I looked up to see him standing straight with a little smile curving his mouth. “Last week, we had our first hard frost, and this morning the ground is hard and there’s snow. Truth be told, it’s not much snow, but enough to call this winter. Well done, Narina.” Granddad always used my whole name instead of calling me Narry like Gramma did.

While I was still adjusting to the idea that everything was okay, he patted me once on my shoulder, the only way he had ever touched me. Gramma was another story. “And it’s a good shot too,” he said. “Right behind the front leg. I’ll hang it while you go help your grandmother.”

“Always hang your game for a few days” was another of his rules. He said it made the meat taste better and get tender, and we had a special outbuilding for that—the meat shed. Granddad did the butchering in there too. It seemed like it would have enough space inside to hang four gutted deer carcasses, but I didn’t know for sure. I wasn’t allowed to even look in there. “Don’t ask me why,” was another of Granddad’s rules.

He flicked his hand, the one holding the dead rabbit, and blood spattered in the snow. “Now git. You’re standing there like you been bewitched. Don’t let your grandmother do all the breakfast chores by herself.”

I ran to the cabin.

In the kitchen, I found Gramma bent over the woodstove, as tiny and neat a person as my Granddad was a huge one. She was lifting fresh cornbread from a covered pan onto a plate and didn’t look at me. “Where was you?” she asked.

“Hunting!” I leaned against the log wall and pulled off my boots. “I got a rabbit. With one shot!”

She looked at me with an odd expression and I wondered if she hadn’t quite heard me. As I was about to repeat myself, she said, “I am grateful for the food, Narry, and know your confidence comes from being well-taught and from practice. But avoid pride. No good comes of it.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Gramma had rules too.

I never knew my mother. Granddad said she died, “going someplace she had no business going,” whatever that meant. It never sounded quite right to me, but the one time I’d pressed him for details, I got locked in the feed room for two days with a jar of water but no food. All I knew was my mom died and her parents—Granddad and Gramma—had raised me on their farm where they mostly followed the old ways. I learned to live that way too.

We cooked and heated with a woodstove, kept food cool in the summer in our spring house, and did without whatever we couldn’t grow, make for ourselves, or kill. Planting started in early spring with cool weather crops like kale, broccoli, and beets. The rest went in as the weather warmed, mainly from saved seed. Once some colorful little envelopes of new seed appeared along with old clothes Gramma would remake into things for the three of us. I never knew where either the seed or the clothes came from, and all Gramma would say was, “God provides.”

For seven months, there was always something growing or needing harvest, and weeds that needed pulling grew everywhere our food crops did. Whatever we didn’t eat fresh had to be “put up” for winter eating, a big job after harvest.

We kept chickens for eggs, goats for milk, and a few hogs for cleaning up scraps. Sometimes Granddad would kill a hog or a chicken if hunting was bad or if he wanted something different to eat. But most of the meat for our table was whatever he—and more recently he and I—could shoot. We ate rabbit and squirrel, venison, groundhog, and some other meat I couldn’t identify. Some creatures are hard to tell by just skinned pieces. It wasn’t an easy life. But whatever else we lacked, we always had plenty to eat.

Gramma looked me up and down. “Go change and wash up before you lay the table, Narry.” She shook her head at me and I took one step back. “You need to learn not to hug fresh kills, but that can’t be helped this time. Put your bloody clothes in the vinegar pail. We’ll launder them later.” She meant the pail on the back porch where Granddad always put his clothes after butchering.

I changed and did as I was told with the soiled clothes. When I came back to get out plates and utensils, I remembered my great shot that morning and couldn’t help smiling. Then my mind went to what Granddad was doing with my rabbit right then and a question came out all by itself.

“Why won’t Granddad let me in the meat shed?” I had never dared to ask that before. “He should know I’m not scared of dead things, and if he let me watch him butchering, I could learn. And help.”

Most of my questions didn’t make Gramma angry like they did Granddad. This time, she shrugged her shoulders while she put slices of fatback into the iron skillet and slid them around so they wouldn’t stick. “It’s his special place,” she said. “One of them, anyways. People got to have their own places.”

That made me wonder where my special place was… if I even had one. It felt like something in me moved sideways and I held my breath for a second. Finally, I asked the rest. “But why can’t he share his place with me?”

I wasn’t paying enough attention and had to skitter away at the last second before Gramma got to me. Usually, she only pinched me when I did something bad, but sometimes it felt like she did it for no reason. Either way, she pinched so hard it really hurt, and the black and purple bruises lasted for weeks. She hardly ever did it when I was little, but as I got older, I had two or three of those bruises all the time, no matter how hard I tried to follow the rules. As old as she was, she could move like a snake and she was brutal.

I kept the table between us until she went back to the bacon as if nothing had happened.

After a few minutes, she said, “Narry, sing us a song.”

We didn’t have electricity or a telephone then—I didn’t even know about those things—and we never went anywhere except hunting. The only music I had ever heard were the songs Granddad played on his mandolin, and one of my favorites was “On Springfield Mountain.” I liked the story, about a boy who got bit by a poisonous snake. A girl who tried to save him died because she had a rotten tooth and when she sucked out the poison, it got in her too.

So, I started singing that, but Gramma stopped me. “Heavens, girl! That’s a frightful song. Sing something more suited to the child you are.”

I wanted to tell her I was no child anymore, but decided that was a bad idea. So, I held my tongue and tried think of another song. “The Green Grass Grows All Around” was a silly piece Granddad taught me when I was about five, but it seemed exactly what she wanted to hear because once I got going, she bobbed her head in time.

The salty-fatty smell of bacon filled the kitchen, and the sizzling sound made it smell even better. As I was thinking about cornbread, bacon, and the eggs I knew Gramma would scramble to go with them, I heard footsteps on the front porch.

My grandmother’s head snapped up. “That ain’t your Granddad’s walk. I need to… No, you’re faster. Run out the back door and fetch him from the meat shed!”

If Gramma was right and it wasn’t Granddad, then who? While I was still wondering, a knock sounded on the door.

“Stop staring, girl! Be quick!”

“But I can’t go in…”

“Git!”

I ran out, sliding in the snow as I rounded the side of the cabin. Over my shoulder, I shot a look toward the front porch. A strange man stood there holding a little case. He wore clothes like I’d never seen, a kind of jacket that didn’t look at all warm. It matched his trousers, both blue, but not like blue jeans. Shocked to see an actual stranger, I tripped and stumbled the rest of the way to the meat shed, arriving in a rush. I hesitated only a second before I banged on the door.

“What in holy hell…” Granddad bellowed from inside and the door flew open. I got only a glance at the long stainless-steel tables inside before he gave me a hard look and slammed the door behind him.

“A man is here,” I choked out. “Gramma said come get you.”

I swear he growled and took off at a limping lope, getting up onto the porch faster than I thought he could. The strange man turned as if to say something, but Granddad didn’t give him a chance. He grabbed the man up by the shirtfront, punched him once in the face, and dragged him backwards down the porch steps toward me.

I had a million questions I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to ask.

Granddad seemed surprised to see me still standing in front of the shed and yelled for my grandmother. “Pearl! Get Narina back in the cabin and keep her there. I need to deal with this.”

I didn’t wait for Gramma to come get me, but ran inside on my own. What I found there puzzled me. Never in my life had I ever seen my grandmother shaken—not when a bear was tearing the chicken house apart, not when she shot a copperhead that had me cornered in the barn, and not when she thought a fever would take both me and Granddad. But this man… it seemed like seeing this man had made all her bones like jelly.

A couple of times while we waited, I tried to sneak a look out a window, but each time Gramma grabbed me away. I heard noise a little later—like a shout or a wail—but I figured it was one of the animals. Even back then, my mind sometimes turned one thing into another and I had learned to let strange thoughts be. Usually, they went away.

It was a long time before I heard a door slam outside. I peeked out before Gramma could tell me not to and saw Granddad padlocking the shed. There was no sign of the strange man.

Boot steps on the porch. Front door creaking open. My grandfather framed in the doorway. “I sent him on his way,” was all he said.

Gramma went to him. “A car?” I think her voice was louder than she thought it was, because I hear her clear as day. He shook his head.

“What’s a car?” I’d never heard that word before.

Both of them looked at me, but neither responded. “Then how?” Gramma asked him in a whisper, but I still heard her. “Walking the road?”

He shrugged and said, “Still so overgrown you can’t hardly find it.” Then he sat down at the table and waited for Gramma to fill his plate.

I knew what overgrown meant, like fallow fields and gardens gone to weeds, but “car” and “road” were two new words. Apparently, they had to do with the man. “What’s a car?” I asked again. “And what does ‘road’ mean?”

Nobody answered me that time either, and it was all I could do to keep from getting loud. But I knew that wouldn’t get me anything but punished and I still wouldn’t have an answer. There had to be a way to find out all the things I wanted to know. There had to be.

I buttered my cornbread and stole looks at them between bites. They both kept their eyes down, fastened on their plates until their food was gone.

I was still looking at Granddad when he cleared his throat and locked eyes with me. I jumped.

“We will speak no more of this incident. You are to forget it, Narina.”

My mind spun as all the things I thought I knew fought to rearrange themselves. I had every intention of keeping silent despite the questions tumbling over each other in my mind. But I couldn’t. “Forget it? How can I? This changes everything!”

Granddad scowled and his mouth twisted into an ugly frown. “Not one thing has changed for you.”

“But that man!” I felt like something had hold of my insides, and I didn’t care what they did to me. “They’re beyond the river, right? Those people. A lot or just a few?”

Gramma’s eyes were as big as two full moons and Granddad gripped the edge of the table. He pushed himself slowly back, his knuckles white.

I knew I had crossed some kind of line and was afraid again, not afraid enough to keep silent, but my voice came out squeaky. “What else haven’t you told me? What else have you lied about?”

Granddad lowered his chin and glared at me from under heavy eyebrows. When he finally spoke, it sounded like thunder. “Narina, stop. I mean it. Stop. We’ve kept you safe from them. From yourself. Like we tried to do for your mother. She wouldn’t listen, and look what happened to her.”

I felt my head tilt sideways like a dog hearing a strange noise. “What do you mean? You said…” Realization dawned. “You lied about that, too.”

“Bite your tongue, Narry!” Gramma snapped. “What do we have to do to make you behave? Maybe you’d listen if we put you in with the pigs. You don’t need all your toes, and you’d remember that lesson for the rest of your life!” She reached across the table for my arm, but I dodged her and jumped up, knocking my chair over backwards.

Granddad stood up too, his face red and his hands bunched into fists at his sides. I held my breath. Not once in my life had he ever struck me, but right then I thought he would. I wondered if his fists would kill me. Instead of striking out, he took a few steps back, seeming to shrink. He cracked his neck sideways and said in a low tone, “All you need to know is that the creature is gone.”

“Creature,” my grandmother repeated.

Granddad’s eyes bored into mine, now more with sadness than anger. “It’s gone. You won’t see it again.”

I opened my mouth to ask them why they called it a creature instead of what it was, a man. Then I closed my lips tight together, locking my words inside. I felt years older than when I’d shot that rabbit only hours earlier, and wondered if my questioning was a serious mistake. I was confronting the ones who had always had more power than I did, and wasn’t considering what might happen to me. I wasn’t careful…

Wait. Be silent now. Just wait.

A few days later, I woke to the smell of breakfast cooking—bacon, but not quite bacon—and Gramma calling my name. My bedroom window was foggy and wet with tiny drops on the inside. Granddad called it condensation and said it was from my warmth on the cold glass. Odd.

After dressing, I went downstairs and began to set the table without being asked. I could see that Gramma must have been up for a while because a pile of sewing lay on the side table beside her favorite chair. I didn’t understand how she could see well enough to sew by just the morning light coming in the windows, and wondered if she somehow did it by feel.

“Making something for Granddad?” I asked her.

She nodded without taking her attention from the skillet. “I was. A hunting vest, I thought. But that fabric isn’t sturdy enough for that and I may make something pretty for you instead. The fabric’s got a nice feel to it. Might be nice against your skin. God provides. Go over there and see if you like it.”

I couldn’t help smiling. It had been a while since she’d made anything for me, and I liked the idea of getting something new. But as I got close to her chair, I stopped, first puzzled and then suddenly understanding.

The fabric was blue, but not like denim, and there was enough for matching jacket and trousers, both now completely disassembled.

I went to the window and saw it had started to snow again, large flakes drifting down in the still air. My grandfather was just coming out of the meat shed, limping against the weight of the slop bucket he carried, presumably for the pigs. A couple of long bones stuck out the top. We hadn’t gotten a deer in a long while, and the bones were too long for anything else I could think of. Granddad closed the shed door, but didn’t lock it.

Even from a distance, I could see his hands and clothes were bloody, the way he always got from butchering. Head down, he headed for the hand pump where I knew he would wash himself. He did, and when he finished, he hoisted up the bucket again and disappeared behind the barn.

We had a rule about lying, but I knew they’d lied to me, and I had unanswered questions. Like how old clothes appeared again and again out of nowhere, what “creatures” Granddad hunted that had meat I couldn’t identify, and why my grandparents kept us so isolated.

I needed to know what had happened to the man whose blue clothes had become a pile of Gramma’s sewing, what bones Granddad was feeding to the hogs, and what the bacon/not bacon was that Gramma was cooking that morning. I thought all those answers, but wasn’t willing to admit to myself what I feared might be true. Not yet.

The answers were in the shed, and if I went out now, I’d have at least a few minutes before Granddad came back or Gramma came looking for me.

A few days ago, I’d felt like I didn’t care what they did to me, what the consequences for violating rules might be. Now it was time for me to act.

Without giving myself time to reconsider, I ran to the back door and pulled on my boots. Then I grabbed my coat and the .22 rifle—I might need both. I heard Gramma calling me back, but ignored her and ran all the way to the shed, my breath coming in white puffs that sent snowflakes whirling. It wouldn’t be long before Gramma came after me. Called Granddad. And I was sure that whatever happened after that wouldn’t be good, given the pile of rules I was in the process of breaking.

I yanked the open the meat shed door and looked inside.

The carcass was headless and gutted, hanging over a hole in the wood floor. It was minus one leg and a strip of belly muscle, the same place where pork bacon comes from. I recognized what—or rather who—this had been. Not a deer. On the stainless-steel table beside the carcass lay a boneless chunk of meat, rolled and tied as a roast. My throat clenched when it struck me that I might have eaten a fair amount of this kind of meat in my life.

In a rush, answers to all my questions tumbled over one another. It all made sense now. I heard Gramma’s shout to me and another to Granddad and turned to see her trying to hurry herself toward me. She wasn’t fast. Neither was Granddad. They would never catch me.

I didn’t have a chance to think about what was I going to do now that I knew the truth about life on this farm. The decision came fast and easy, and almost before I knew I had decided, I was running as fast as I could in the one direction I was never supposed to go.

I didn’t know exactly where the river was, but it had to be there or else why would Granddad make a rule about not going past it. I believed it was there. It had to be. And just like in my dream, I would jump in and cross it.

Running faster than I’d ever run, I scared up a young doe from the underbrush and we raced together, just like in my dream. When we got to the river, I knew she would jump in and I knew I would follow her. I felt dizzy with the wonder of it, and my insides vibrated with something more exciting than fear. Maybe the unknown. Maybe freedom.

On the other side of the river, I would find those other people wherever they were. After that, I wasn’t sure. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to let my grandparents take me back to the farm.

I felt doubt crowding past the excited feeling. That water would be cold, winter cold, and if I made it to the other side, I’d be soaked. Maybe get sick. Maybe die from it.

“I’ll find another way over,” I told myself out loud.

Then I heard Gramma’s voice in my head. “God provides.”

pencil

Gail A. Webber is a retired science teacher who lives and writes on a small farm in Maryland. Her stories have appeared in Fiftiness, The Tower Journal, Toasted Cheese Literary Journal, Persimmon Tree, and others), and in anthologies including 2016 Write Well Award, The Way You Walk Through Madness, and Writings to Stem Your Existential Dread. She has published three novels and a volume of short stories. Facebook. Email: gail_webber[at]hotmail.com

Fitting Room #3

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Jason Porterfield


Photo Credit: Endless Studio/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Cashmere topcoats. Merino wool scarves. Gloves made from some kind of nanofiber so new that it hadn’t been properly named. All illuminated by a golden show window light that invited thoughts of blazing fireplaces and designer Irish setters, crystal tumblers and old Scotch.

The shop windows on Duvivier Street held wonders that Dimitri LaFitte knew were out of his grasp. Those tony things may as well have been on display in a lunar showroom as in the street-facing windows of Faberge Leaf. It was the kind of store that probably checked one’s references before admitting access.

“Don’t even think about going in that place,” His uncle Dansby had told him one long-ago December evening when he noticed the teenaged Dimitri peering in as they walked by on their way to the city’s annual tree lighting.

“They wouldn’t let you in. You don’t carry the right kind of cachet.” Dansby rubbed his thumb against his fingers, the universal sign for cash. Dimitri felt his cheeks flush at the thought of his wallet, empty in his back pocket except for a picture of his ex-girlfriend, a losing scratch-off lottery ticket he bought at a vending machine, and his learner’s permit. Why bother carrying a wallet at all?

He thought of Dansby every time he walked by the storefront. His uncle so casually dismissed the idea of going into a place that was frequented by people who made astronomical amounts of money, whose hourly earnings may well have topped what Dansby made in a month as an accountant.

Dimitri didn’t exactly promise himself that someday he would go into that store as a customer, but he never passed it without experiencing a deep yearning for the kind of life its stock of luxury goods represented and the income needed to attain them.

Yet somehow Dimitri had not risen to those economic heights when fire ravished his apartment building some fifteen years later. He had a steady job, a collection of furnishings and clothing—most of it purchased new but not at boutiques. There was a little credit card debt but not enough to make it hard to pay his bills.

The fire department’s inspection of the ruins of his former apartment building revealed multiple structural issues were to blame for the conflagration.They found evidence that the building’s owners bribed city officials for years to look the other way when safety issues with the wiring and heating systems arose. A settlement with the tenants was offered and rejected. When a jury found fault with both the building’s owners and the city, a significant sum of money was divided among the former residents and Dimitri suddenly found himself rather wealthy.

His first acts on receiving his portion of the damages awarded were to pay off his debt, buy an inexpensive condo in the same neighborhood and reinvest a sizable portion of his payment so that he could remain relatively comfortable for life.

Only then did he begin to fantasize about visiting Faberge Leaf. He visited the store’s website, a glitzy affair of high-definition images that didn’t actually feature any merchandise and certainly didn’t mention prices. Apart from a few basics, he had not replaced most of his wardrobe after the fire. The one exception he made was to pick up a nice suit, a tailored specimen from a noted label. It was expensive, but didn’t threaten to put any kind of dent in his bank account.

Dimitri took the day off for his trip downtown. His new suit, worn a time or two to break it in, was cleaned and pressed. He called Uncle Dansby before getting dressed and told him of his impending trip to Faberge Leaf.

“Oh Dimitri, don’t go to that store!” Dansby practically shouted. “Take that money and go back to the place where you bought your suit. They know you now and they treated you well. Give your money to someone who has earned it.”

“You know I’ve wanted to shop there since I was a kid,” Dimitri retorted. “Now I’m someone who can actually afford whatever it is they stock there and I’m going to go there and they are going to serve me like they would any customer.”

“Let me ask you a question.” Dansby paused for long enough that Dimitri wondered whether he was still on the phone. He was almost surprised when the older man spoke again. “Have you ever seen anyone coming out of that store looking happy that they’ve been shopping there? Or looking like they just had the time of their life? Have you?”

“Well, no.” Thinking back, Dimitri couldn’t remember ever seeing anyone coming out of the store at all. Nor could he remember ever seeing anyone go in. But who, apart from security guards, notices people going into shops?

“See? That store didn’t solve their problems or make their lives easier. It probably made them worse. Now they had a pricey jacket but none of their things matched it. They had to go back for new accessories, new shoes, new jewelry to set it off. And by the time they finished, the whole thing would be out of date by the standards of the Faberge Leaf.” Dansby practically spat the store’s name in Dimitri’s ear.

“Don’t worry, Uncle Dansby,” he said, now holding the earpiece a safe distance away. “I won’t lose my head, and I’ll be sure to give you a full report.” He hung up before the older man could say anything else and proceeded to get dressed.

Dimitri hired a car to take him downtown. It was too cold to walk. Besides, he intended to splurge and saw no reason to waste the experience by taking public transportation or a common rideshare. His charcoal-gray suit was immaculate beneath his black wool overcoat as he stepped onto the sidewalk. A storefront mirror reflected his neatly trimmed hair, the matching tie and pocket square the suit store helped him pick out, his shiny shoes and the silver glint of his wristwatch, an expensive piece he had inherited from his grandfather and kept in a safe deposit box.

He was pleased with what he saw. He strode down the sidewalk with purpose and crowds parted around him, some pedestrians even stepping into day-old banks of snow to get out of his way.

Faberge Leaf appeared uncrowded, though he could see employees inside. He made to grab the door handle and pull it toward him, but noticed the buzzer just in time to avoid the embarrassment of having the door catch in the latch. He smoothly changed the motion and pressed the buzzer with his index finger, allowing a small smile to play across this lips.

A moment later, the latch clicked and he went inside.

The store was bathed in golden light, the sort that illuminates favorite memories of family gatherings or good times spent with friends. A faint aroma of jasmine was in the air. Hidden speakers played the sound of breaking waves. He felt soothed, content.

An employee glided over. Dimitri caught the man’s glance flick up and down his body, his mind surely assessing the quality of everything from his shoes to his haircut. He gave Dimitri a warm smile.

“Welcome, Sir.” He held out his arm. “May I take your coat?”

Dimitri murmured his thanks and passed the overcoat to the employee, who promptly disappeared with it into an area behind the sales counter.

“Would Sir like a refreshment?” Another employee had popped up at his right elbow with a tray of beverages. To his surprise, the cups held cold drinks rather than the coffee or aged Scotch Dimitri expected. He chose one at random that tasted of lychees and summer afternoons. He couldn’t wait to tell Dansby about being addressed as “Sir” like a character in a 1930s British melodrama.

The employee accepted his empty cup with a nod and followed the one who had taken his jacket.

“Please, Sir, take your time with the merchandise.” Another employee had approached. “Simply come to the desk when you are ready to try something on. And do stay out of the third fitting room. It is in a ghastly state.” The man made a face. Dimitri had a hard time imagining what would cause an employee of such a fancy place to arrange his features into such a hideous mask.

“Must be a really big spider,” he thought to himself, making a mental note to investigate the third fitting room at the first opportunity.

He took his time, going over fine scarves, gloves, and shirts of such fine knit they might have been made by caterpillars. He was briefly hypnotized by a display of neckties with patterns so subtle and understated that they seemed to hold the key to infinity.

Eventually he chose another suit, a silk and poplin outfit in a subtle, blue-check pattern that would be ideal for warmer weather. He grabbed a tie and pair of shirts that would match the suit. Thinking about conditions outside, he also selected a fine scarf that could only be cashmere and an umbrella with gold embossing. Nothing was priced, but prices did not matter.

He approached the sales counter and an employee promptly appeared.

“Would Sir like to try on those items so that we can assure a proper fit?”

“Yes, thank you.”

The employee came around the counter and led him to the back. “Any of these fitting rooms should be fine, except the one on the end. Stay out of #3.”

The employee emphasized the point by scowling at the fitting room door in question. Whatever Fitting Room #3 had done to him, he wasn’t ready to forgive or forget.

“Why not use that one?” After being in the store essentially by himself for more than two hours, according to his watch, this was the first limitation anyone had placed on him.

“It’s not up to our standards,” the employee sniffed.

“So it’s closed or something.”

“No, it’s closed. It’s just not for a man of your—ah—discerning taste. Please, Sir, don’t go in there.”

Dimitri saw it, the moment the employee had sussed him out as someone who maybe had enough cash to afford to step into Faberge Leaf, but would never again have that sum. Windfall inheritances. Lucky nights at the casino. A winning lottery ticket. The employee’s eyes told him that he was still trying to sort Dimitri into one of those categories.

“Very good,” Dimitri responded, injecting as much ice into his words as possible. He strode toward Fitting Room #3.

“Sir, I must ask you to stay out of there.” The words were almost forceful.

“Thank you, but your assistance is no longer required.” Without another glance at the employee, he entered the fitting room and closed the door with a satisfying click.

There wasn’t anything special about this room, he thought. The light was subtle, designed to soften lines and flatter features and figures. Every wall was mirrored.

He took a long look at his reflection, dressed in the best suit that he had ever owned. Even in the flattering light, it looked like an off-rack discount model when compared to the items he had seen in the showroom. He looked at the blue suit he had chosen. Next to it, the one he was wearing resembled the sort of garment prisoners are given after their sentences are up. He hurried to change into the one he picked out.

He dressed with pleasure. Every piece of the suit seemed to banish a month of winter from his mind. He smelled the jasmine again. His mouth tasted lychee.

He perfected the knot in his tie and once again stepped into his shoes. A multitude of Dimitris looked back at him. He glanced at his footwear. The shoes would do, but it wouldn’t hurt to check the store for something more appropriate. At least his watch went well with the new outfit.

He moved his arms, bemusedly watching untold thousands of Dimitris do the same. Up, down, out, flapping up and down, crossing and uncrossing. He sat down and stood up, then tried walking in place. When that didn’t work, he paced the circumference of the fitting room. The other Dimitris followed. He thought about humming a John Philip Sousa march, then remembered that he was in the most exclusive store in the city.

After three of four turns around the fitting room, Dimitri decided he had seen enough. The suit would have to be modified, but not by much. The employees had implied that they could tailor items in-store, perhaps even as he waited. He could have another of those delicious lychee drinks, or perhaps ask for something hot. He was beginning to feel a chill despite the hint of jasmine in the air.

It was time to go, but he had gotten turned around in the fitting room. He scanned the walls for the door. He was beyond being amused by the other Dimitris also scanning their own mirrored walls, so he didn’t notice that some of the reflected Dimitris simply stood there, watching him.

He turned in a circle, but couldn’t spot the door. He put out his hands and felt around, but touched only cold glass. The smell of pine needles drifted in through the ventilation system. He did find the hook holding his old suit. Feeling chillier by the second, he draped the blazer over his shoulders. Under the hook he saw a small button marked “Ring For Assistance.” He pressed it and listened for a sound. He heard the tinkle of icicles hitting the ground and shattering.

“I need assistance!” he shouted, pressing the button so hard his finger ached.

“Assistance is unavailable at this time,” a chilly voice informed him.

By then his breath was fogging in the air and he was shivering. The mirrors remained unclouded. If anything, they were more clear than before. He watched one of the Dimitris shiver for a moment, then stop.

“But I’m still shivering,” he said to himself. “I’m still cold and getting colder.”

His body was shaking violently. Unable to stand any longer, he slumped to the floor. The other Dimitris remained upright. Some appeared to straighten their posture, towering and looming from his perspective. Still wearing their new blue suits, they stepped toward him, unbuttoning their jackets as they did. Some Dimitris offered him wolfish smiles full of teeth. Others were expressionless.

He heard the sound of ice shattering as they breached their barriers. The smell of freshly frozen snow was in the air as the Dimitris reached for him with their cold, cold hands.

pencil

Jason Porterfield is an award-winning journalist and author living in Chicago, Illinois. Email: jporterfield99[at]gmail.com