Nephthys: Childhood Memory

Osiris drew back the string of the bow and trained it at a palm tree as a bolt of light formed from between his draw fingers across to the belly of the bow. He held it there for a moment, holding his breath steady, then the lightbolt propelled forward as he released the draw. The ‘bolt passed right through the palm tree without leaving a mark.

“What happened? Why isn’t it on fire?” asked Nephthys, frowning. She had seen her brother and father shooting their bows in the range before and when the lightbolts had hit the targets they had burst into flames.

Her brother looked round and smiled. “That was just a practice shot, I didn’t charge the ‘bolt. You can’t just go round shooting trees, you’d burn the whole place down.”

“Charge?” Nephthys asked, curious. This was the first time Osiris had let her come with him, she wanted to learn as much as she could.

He knelt down by her side and wiggled his gloved shooting hand. “This controls the ‘bolt – you can’t shoot without a glove – it’s… kind of plugged in to you, so you just–”

“Like when you mind-hack?” she cut in.

“Yes, just like hacking. So you just think about how much charge you want to give, and that’s what you’ll get.”

Nephthys nodded slowly. “Can I have a go now?”

Her brother laughed. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Why not?” she whined.

“You’re a girl, for starters, you shouldn’t be shooting bows, you should be playing with dolls and dreaming about marriage…”

Nephthys wrinkled her nose. “Yuk. I’m never getting married. And dolls are boring.”

“You will get married,” Osiris said, distracted. He had drawn and loosed his bow once more, again uncharged at the palm. “Some day, anyway. Father will see to that. As to dolls, you’re right they’re boring, but still, you’re too young to shoot.”

“I’m not.”

Osiris ignored her. “Right, practice is over. How about some real shooting.” He took a small stone from his bag and handed it to her, scanning the lush greenery that crowded the banks of the Nile; he stopped, narrowed his eyes, then raised and drew his bow.

“What are you aiming a–”

Shh,” her brother cut in in a whisper. “Count to five in your head, then throw the stone into those bushes over there.” The lightbolt nocked on the bow seemed different somehow – Nephthys thought she could feel warmth coming from the ‘bolt.

She counted to five in her head, then threw the stone. A great blue bird burst from the bushes, squarking in alarm. Osiris released the bowstring just as Nephthys realised what was happening.

“No,” she cried as the lightbolt flew through the air. It missed the bird narrowly and shot off into the clear blue sky.

“Shit,” muttered Osiris, drawing the bow again.

Nephthys squeezed her eyes shut, her fists closed tightly too, she reached out with her mind in the direction of the big blue bird…

And she was falling, flailing madly. The second lightbolt from Osiris’s bow missed her as she fell – he’d shot it into the her line of flight, but she’d dropped unexpectedly and he’d already released the shot. Wings! She flapped her wings, awkwardly at first, then with a bit more confidence as she adjusted to the bird’s anatomy. The little girl on the riverbank was tensed stiff as stone – no, wait, that was her. She dipped and dived towards her true self as Osiris drew again, tried to alight on her shoulder but her clumsy claws raked on flesh…

A terrible pain in her shoulder disconnected her from the bird. She let out a squeal and looked down at where the bird – no, where she had cut herself. Her bright blue dress was torn and her blood was soaking it purple. The bird flapped down on the floor behind her and then hopped up onto its feet. Osiris stared wide-eyed, the lightbolt in his bow fading as he slowly un-drew the string.

“Did you just… hack that bird?” he asked in a quiet voice.

“You’re not killing it,” said Nephthys, pouting in defiance. Her shoulder hurt more than anything she’d ever felt before and her vision was swimming with tears. Still she faced her brother unblinking, not letting a single one of those tears touch her cheeks.

“Nephthys, your shoulder,” he gasped, only just noticing the wound. “We need to get you back, come on. Gods, father’s going to kill me.” Osiris gathered up his gear and held his hand out to her.

“I’m bringing Sky,” said Nephthys in the most commanding tone her child’s voice could assume. She scooped up the bird and cradled it in her arms. Despite her best efforts, she blinked and a couple of tears rolled down her cheeks.

Astra: Childhood Memory

The inner airlock hissed as it sealed shut. She felt sick and scared and alone. She wanted to go back – back within the walls of the Pyramine where it was safe, back to her big brother waiting on the other side of the airlock. “Fyreflies never strike the same place twice,” he had told her before she had stepped into the chamber, “so once you reach the breach, you’ll be safe.” How she wished he was with her now. Why hadn’t they sent him to make the repairs? She was just a kid, a schoolgirl, why were they sending her out into the mist?

Astra wanted to cry, to go back inside into the arms of her big brother. She could override the airlock, she knew: she could hack into the system easily enough and reverse the exit protocol, forget the consequences – anything was better than going out there. Instead, she checked her ventilation mask once more, merely touching it with her hand: the bionic engineer’s glove fused into her nervous system analysed the equipment, sending signals to the chip in her skull and the mainframe in her helmet. All systems operational, she and her helmet-computer thought simultaneously.

The outer airlock disengaged and pink mist filled the chamber. She could feel it settling on her skinsuit, tiny particles of electric light, and a surge of power ran through her as she adjusted to the atmosphere. Visibility was low. Even with her intraocular lenses she could barely see a few metres in front of her, except for the far-off, faint glow of the Fyreflies. The pink mist had been disturbed at the opening of the chamber, but now it began to settle and became still in the air; tiny particles of electric light.

She stepped slowly out of the chamber, the fog seemed to throb around her, contracting and expanding. She turned to the face the looming wall of the Pyramine. Sixty-seven-point-seven metres up was where the bloated Fyrefly had struck; the entire twenty-second floor infirmary was compromised.

Astra leapt nimbly onto the sloped wall of the Pyramine, instinctively activating and deactivating the magnets in her boots and gloves as she scuttled up the steep structure towards the breach. The higher she climbed the more exposed she felt. Her back was to the Fyreflies – distant when she began her ascent but how close were they now? She fought the urge to look over her shoulder and continued to climb.

At sixty-seven-point-seven metres the Fyrefly had struck. It had hit the weak point in the shield-field right above the projector, torn through the access hatch and down the vent, destroying or disabling the field-projector itself. The surface around the breach was blackened and burnt. Crawling into the vent, Astra understood why they had sent her, an untested child, out into the mist when so many older, more experienced engineers were available: no other engineer could fit through the breach. The vent had collapsed and contorted into a tight tunnel bristling with sharp, twisted metal. Even with her tiny frame, she struggled to make her way through, taking great care not to snag her skinsuit as one tear would mean death.

When she reached the field-projector, she assessed the damage: the field-projector and plasma-packs had been damaged beyond repair, but the connector seemed unharmed – a brush of her fingertips across the connector told her it was operational. It seemed the Fyrefly had caused more damage to the vent than the projector systems. Astra set to work.

Any education she was lacking was accessible via her mainframe, and her bionic engineer’s gloves were the only tools she needed. A little work was required on the connector but nothing major. She replaced the field-projector and the plasma-packs and then bent and fused the jagged pieces of metal within the vent as a temporary precaution until the access hatch could be replaced. Another engineer could fix the hatch – there was no way she could scale the Pyramines with a thick slab of metal on her back.

Out of the vent, she paused on the blackened metal around the breach, her boots and gloves stuck fast to the Pyramine walls. The fear was now fading from her and she stared at the outer-world in awe. The lights of a second Pyramine were vaguely visible in the distance and she thought she could make out a ship floating, descending to the Pyramine’s base. The pink mist was thinner up here; Astra looked up wondering if she could perhaps see this ‘sky’ she’d heard so much about.

There, high above her, a bright white star, suspended in the air.

A New Cairo trader had told her once that ‘Astra’ meant ‘star’ in some ancient, dead language (before a Peacekeeper commanded her to buy something or move on). She had only seen images and videos of stars and galaxies, seen them in the mind’s eye of her mainframe – she never imagined that she would ever truly see one for herself.

But there it was, a star – her star, she decided. Bright white above her, glowing. Growing.

Growing? That’s strange, she thought, while her mainframe searched through all the data it had on stars. As it grew bigger, she realised it wasn’t a star. Out in the mist that ball of light could only be a Fyrefly.

“Fyreflies never strike the same place twice,” her brother had told her. Astra remembered his advice and remained where she was. She stayed dead still, watching as the ball of light sped down towards her. Her body wanted to run – every muscle twitched, begging, pleading her to move. Her lenses identified the threat, her mainframe frantically analysed the situation and, in a fraction of a second, came to the same conclusion as her body – move or die.

What if her brother was wrong? What the fog did he know of Fyreflies? It was almost upon her now; her mind, body and mainframe all screamed at her to “Move!”

She leapt out from the Pyramine seconds before the Fyrefly impacted with the shield-field. A soundless explosion filled the world with light and energy, sending a shockwave through the air, catching Astra mid-jump. The force knocked the breath from her lungs and sent her spinning, falling, screaming. The flash had blinded her and she groped in the darkness with boot and glove for the surface of the Pyramine. Her fingers connected with something, latching on fast. Her tumbling body flung round to slam her right side into the sloped surface. Pain as she’d never felt before exploded in her hip; her arm was jerked from its socket. She let out a childish whimper.

The glove disconnected as Astra’s consciousness slipped away and she dropped down to land hard on the pink sand.

In a few moments the airlock opened and her brother came running out, scooping her up in his arms and carrying her back to the chamber. She was alive but unconscious and seriously injured. And, to her brother’s horror, her skinsuit was ripped to shreds, her ventilation mask cracked open. Astra inhaled the deadly pink mist in pained and broken breaths.

My Killer

There is this pain in the pit of my stomach, a swelling in my throat. Where the hell is she? It’s been two months and no word – nothing.

What was I supposed to do? What the fuck did she want me to do?

I’m going over the old reports in my study – the ones I managed to photocopy – shuffling frantically through the pages and pictures on my desk, scattered there in incoherent disorder, looking for anything that I might have missed.

Two months. Did I do something wrong? Have I missed my chance? Dread coldly grips my gut; the thought is too much to bear.

Fuck!’ I throw the lamp across the room, only to have the wire snap tight and stop it dead before it reaches the wall. That felt good. Release. But the dread slithers back and coils up in my stomach.

This time I pick up my chair and scream as I swing it into the wall. It doesn’t break like in the movies – the impact jolts up my arm and sends my brain crashing against my skull. More.

I go into the library that was my father’s. It’s dark and cold and the dismal rain beats against the windowpanes. I rip the books from the shelves, tearing out pages and casting them aside, hurling books blindly across the room. I hear glass smash – whether it’s one of the cabinets or the windows I cannot say. I just give myself up to the rage, the exhilaration of chaos.

But as before, when the fire dies, the cold dread comes crawling back. I find myself sat in broken glass, crying in the moonlight, holding the picture of Victim Four’s pretty, naked corpse.

***

When I arrived at the scene of the crime, the Scientific Support Branch were already collecting evidence and taking photographs. Jack was stood outside smoking, flirting with a new, young constable; when I saw the body I imagined it was Jack laying there dead, his head bludgeoned to bloody pulp and his fingers severed from his hands.

The flat was trashed and the bed was spattered with blood and bits of brain. The whole scene was chaos. Everything was a mess, except for the bookshelf.

The books were ordered alphabetically by author, with romances and detective novels pressed cheek to cheek. As I expected, there was an empty space, the books either side smeared with blood. I thought of the bookshelf from the previous murder, stupidly arranged by the colour of the spine.

‘There are traces of what appears to be semen here, Sir.’

They were telling me what I already knew. This was the second murder that month: male victim bludgeoned in their sleep, fingers severed postmortem, traces of semen, and a missing book.

‘It looks like we have a serial killer on our hands.’ Jack came to stand by my side. Even through the stench of death I could still smell the stale smoke clinging to his clothes and his stubble. ‘Inspector,’ he said, by way of greeting. ‘How’s Caroline?’

‘She left me.’ I acted sullen to kill any further enquiry; truth be told I couldn’t care less about her leaving, we’d been growing apart for a long time.

Jack started mumbling half-hearted words of comfort, but I shut him out and thought about what this meant. A serial killer; I’d never investigated a serial killer before. My heart started to beat fiercely. This is what I needed – something to focus on. Was the book just a trophy, or did it mean something more? The killer was most likely female, seducing her victims, fucking them, and then killing them while they slept. I felt a little rush as I imagined the killer and victim writhing naked in the bed. I hadn’t had sex since Caroline left – the only thing I really missed.

***

She came home late. I stood in the library in the dark waiting for her. As she walked past, she glanced over at me and let out a little squeal.

‘God! You frightened me. What are you doing standing in the dark?’

‘Come here,’ I said, and she did. ‘I wasn’t allowed in here when I was a child, my father would lock the door. One day my sister gave me the key and I came in and looked at the books, so ordered, each in it’s designated place – it looked almost natural. I started taking down different volumes, flicking through the pages and touching the spines; they smelt old and dusty. I must’ve had a dozen books scattered around me when my father walked in. He came over and hit me hard across the face with the back of his hand. “Put them back where they were,” he said. I knew I shouldn’t have been in there.’

Caroline moved towards me. ‘That’s horrible,’ she said, and reached out her hand.

I recoiled from her touch. ‘Where have you been?’

The question took her by surprise. ‘I just had to work late.’

‘Don’t lie to me.’ She flinched at the tone of my voice.

‘I’m not lying, I was at the office.’

‘You left work on time, Gerry saw you.’

She stepped back and her face screwed up in anger. ‘You had someone follow me? Fuck’s sake, Frank, that’s crazy!’

‘Where were you?’

‘You’ve got to stop with this jealousy, you’re destroying us.’

I grabbed her by the arms and pushed her hard against the bookshelf. ‘You’re destroying us with your lies. Tell me where you’ve been.’ I could see fear in her eyes, brimming with tears. I could see fear and I could see defiance.

‘I’m not some suspect to interrogate, Frank, I’m your wife. You can’t intimidate me, you bully. You don’t control me.’ She shoved me away and stormed out the room. Some horrible impulse rushed through me – to go after her, to hurt her – but it passed as quick as it came, and she was gone.

I calmly left the library, and went about my nightly routine. The next day I woke at 5:35am, as I do every day, and left at 6:15 to go to work.

***

I drove to the scene of the crime, excitement reawakening my exhausted body. There had been a fourth murder, the same MO as my killer.

The case had been going on for six weeks now and I’d been heading the investigation. Late nights poring over the smallest details had done nothing but assure me of the intelligence hidden behind the chaos. She was good, my killer, left nothing but mess at the scene ­– no DNA, no prints, no nothing. We had checked the victims’ phone records but they yielded no suspects, and were waiting on Facebook to give us access to the victims’ private messages. But it was the book that was key, it had to be. I was convinced the same book had been taken from each of the victims, but to figure out the title was near impossible. My killer was sending a message by taking this book, and once I found the book, I’d find my killer.

Walking into the crime scene was intoxicating.

The bookshelf was in the hall, the volumes carelessly shoved into loose groups – graphic novels on one shelf, mixed fiction on another – and sure enough, a smear of blood, implying something had been taken.

I cursed the victim’s sloppiness, the disorder of the bookshelf would give me no help in uncovering the title of the missing book. But when I entered the bedroom, the breath caught in my throat.

There she was, splayed out on the bed, pale, naked and beautiful. The duvet that covered her head was soaked through with dark blood but the rest of her body was untouched – perfect. Her hands were resting on her hips, fingers still attached, as if she were reaching down to touch herself.

Why the deviation? All the other victims had been male. What was different? What was she trying to say?

I felt nervous and nauseous, but I wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t the body – I’d seen too many grisly sights to be squeamish. Besides, she was not a grisly sight: from the neck down, that perfect body, that pose, it was almost inviting.

Fuck.

Was that it? Was this an invitation?

‘Wow! that body. Shame about the face.’

Jack. How long had he been here? What was he doing here anyway?

‘What are you thinking, Inspector?’

‘I-I’m not sure.’ I stepped closer to Victim Four. Was this my killer reaching out to me? It was a completely absurd thought but I couldn’t push it away.

‘Well I’ll tell you what I’m thinking, come on.’ He led me away from Victim Four and into the empty hall. ‘You look like shit. Is everything OK?’

It was true, I did look bad. I stayed up late most nights working on the case and woke at 5:35 every morning for work, no matter what time I went to bed. Some nights I didn’t sleep at all.

‘I’m fine, Jack,’ I said, distracted. ‘I’ve just been working hard on this case.’

‘Yeah, and no one doubts that.’ He put his hand on my arm and moved in close. ‘Look, I know things must be tough with Caroline leaving,’ – his breath stank of stale smoke; I struggled with the urge to head-butt him – ‘but you can’t let it interfere with your work. Go home, Inspector, get some rest.’

I jerked my arm away from his hand. ‘The only thing interfering is you, Jack. You’re not my superior, you don’t give me orders.’ I started back towards the bedroom.

‘They’re not my orders, they’re Wilson’s.’

I stopped, turned.

‘She’s taking you off the case. You’re getting nowhere. She says you’re obsessing over the missing books, failing to follow up on suspects – completely discounting male suspects. How do you know the killer’s not a man?’

‘I know my killer, I–’

Your killer? It’s not your killer, not any more.’ I felt a flush creep up my neck. ‘We’ll keep you informed; you can still play a part in this case. But for now, go home, Inspector.’

I barely remember the drive home – my mind was a mess. Was I right, was it an invitation? My killer.

The gravel crunched beneath the tyres as I parked in my driveway. The house loomed over me, silent and empty.

I took my reports, notes and photos from out of the filing cabinet and arranged them on the coffee table, sitting down on the couch. I had to figure this out, I had to find her. But after hours of reading and rereading, my eyes became leaden, my thoughts sluggish, and weeks of exhaustion finally dragged me down to sleep.

***

I’m in my father’s library. I’m looking for a book but I don’t know the title and the shelves keep shifting and changing shape. It’s dark, I can barely see. I switch on the light but nothing happens; I light a candle but the flame barely touches the darkness. I start pulling down books but none of them are right.

I hear my father coming, I’m gripped with terror, I run into the next room.

Victim Four lies on her bed, her hands move between her legs. She sits up, the blood soaked duvet covering her face. I walk over and push myself inside her; her skin is cold. I peel the cover off her head and it’s Caroline, and she’s telling me to go deeper. Her face shifts and it’s Jack, grinning at me with stained yellow teeth.

I woke up on the couch, groggy, dry-mouthed and rock-hard. I tried to remember what I’d dreamt of but the images slipped away. I rubbed my eyes and with blurred vision looked at my watch: 9:06am.

***

I wake up in the library to a knocking at the door. I’d cut myself on the glass last night; the room looks like one of her crime scenes.

I open the door to Gerry, smiling excitedly.

‘We got him!’

‘Who?’

‘The killer. Jack brought him in today.’

‘Him?’

‘Yeah, the guy’s just some librarian. Facebook gave us access to the victims’ private messages. He’d groom them online, sleep with them and kill them.’

What? ‘But… Victim Four?’

‘Oh, she was a mistake, his fourth target’s girlfriend – she wasn’t supposed to be there. Jack got a full confession today. I’m sorry, they wouldn’t let me tell you until it was all tied up. But we got him!’

The room starts to spin. ‘Thanks Gerry, I appreciate it. Take care.’ I close the door while he’s still talking.

I find my phone and see I have a text from my sister. We haven’t spoken since she left, when our father died. I let the phone drop from my hand and walk back down the hall.

The library that was my father’s looks like a crime scene. I pick up a shard of broken glass and press it to my wrist.

Windbreaker

“Really? It’s a bit cold and windy, isn’t it?”

“Don’t worry, I’ve come prepared.” I pulled a blanket from one of the bags and passed it to her. She smiled and we made our way down to the beach.

We chose a spot suitably close to the shoreline and I set up our picnic area: a large blanket to sit on, a five-pole windbreaker, and a hamper full of good food and a fine bottle of wine.

“I’m impressed,” said Jess when I was done, taking a seat on the blanket, “you truly have come prepared. You’ve done this before haven’t you? I bet you bring all the women here.”

I laughed. “You got me, I’m a serial picnicker.” I sat down beside her. “Could you pass me the wine? – Thanks, Alice. If you want to get the glasses out, I’ll open this.”

“Jess.”

“What?”

“My name’s Jess.”

“What did I say?”

“Alice.”

“Oh sorry, Jess. I don’t know where I got ‘Alice’ from.” I opened the wine, poured, and handed her a glass.

“Don’t worry, it’s fine,” she said. Then, a moment of silence.

***

The weather was foul, the sea rough; I sat on the patio of the beach café watching the rain and the waves whipped by the wind, imagining what it would be like to be caught in a storm at sea, on some large trawler, or a pirate ship, hundreds of years ago.

A waiter came to clear my table and snapped me out of my daydream. I ordered another tea and returned to the book I’d been reading before my mind had begun to wander.

***

After we packed away the picnic, I walked her to her car. She turned to say goodbye, stepped forward to kiss me.

“I’m sorry, Cathy,” I said, halting her by gently placing my hands on her shoulders. “I think we should take it slow.”

“Slow? Well, OK, I guess. Something to look forward to next time.”

I smiled and agreed, knowing full well there was not going to be a next time.

The drive home was long, but in some ways it wasn’t long enough. I tried to drift off into a daydream, but I never can when I’m headed home. I sat parked outside for fifteen minutes before I finally left the car. As I walked up to the front door, I took my wedding ring from my pocket and placed it back on my finger.

***

It was a warm and glowing day. We met with shy smiles and walked close together down to the sand.

“It’s a bit breezy,” I said.

“Don’t worry, I’ve come prepared!” In the bag she carried was a rolled up windbreaker. I laid out the blanket and opened the hamper and we ate and drank wine in the summer warmth, sheltered from the wind. I remember her skin was browned from the sun, and how her yellow hair flashed in the sunlight.

We spoke of small things until the sun began to set, painting the sea red and gold. And when the time came to leave, she kissed me gently on the lips.

I’m ever thankful she did, I didn’t have the courage to kiss her first.

 

***

“Alice,” I whisper, gently stroking her brow. She murmurs and blinks open her tired eyes. She’s in pain. Exhausted. She looks ten years older than she is, her skin pale, her yellow hair thin and brittle. “Dr. Mayer is here, she’s just going to see how you’re doing.” My wife shows no sign of comprehension. There are good and bad days. This is a bad day.

After a brief examination, Dr. Mayer decides to raise the dosage of the pain medication; all we can do is try to make Alice as comfortable as possible. When the doctor leaves, I call to cancel with the woman I was supposed to meet tomorrow. I want to be here with my wife, close, should she begin to pass.

I spend the day by her side as she slips in and out of consciousness, talking about our life together, our seventeen years. Whether she can hear me or not I do not know. When night comes I recline in the chair by the side of her bed, blankets draped over my lap. I take her hand in my mine and hold it softly, until at last I feel myself slipping off to sleep.

***

We spoke of small things until the sun began to set, painting the sea red and gold. And when the time came to leave, she kissed me gently on the lips. I’m ever thankful she did, I didn’t have the courage to kiss her first.

“I’ll see you again?”

“Soon,” I replied.

“Goodbye,” she said. I try now to remember her smile, but it’s no good.

“Goodbye, Alice.”

Isla: Part III

The sand is so cold; the ashes of winter fall through my fingers. The tide is almost at my feet now, it crept up so fast. Where has the shore gone?

The wet sand is shifting beneath my feet. Before me the sea rages in constant motion, reaching out forever, never still. The steely blue water, the turbulent tides. Behind me the beach fades into fog, lost in the pale mist.

I remember the time my brother nearly drowned, and the summer Michael and I spent here before Marcus was born, when my hair was as yellow as the sunlit sand. Now I stand under an iron sky, the clouds moving while I wait at the water’s edge. This is no way to celebrate life, dressed all in black; our life together was full of colour.

Marcus is waiting for me in the car, and this thick, black coat offers no protection from the cold coastal winds crashing against me, but I cannot bring myself to leave. I know this is the last time I’ll see this beach, and though it’s a dark winter’s day, I see more than the bleak blue-grey waves. There was colour here once, and there will be colour here again, not for me perhaps, but here nonetheless.


Part I

Part II

Part III

Isla: Part II

It was smaller than I remembered: the shoreline was higher up the beach, and the rocks to the south seemed much closer than when I was a kid. I thought about how my brother and I used to go rockpooling, the crabs and little shrimp, and all the life left behind when the sea retreated.

I took Michael’s hand and led him onwards, towards the sea. I could feel the sun’s burning touch on my skin. Under the cover of shade, we lay together, reading our books and watching children play with their buckets and spades.

We decided to build our own castle, and spent hours fussing over the smallest details. And just as the evening came and the warmth of the day began to fade, we finished making our home, and left before we saw it swept away by the sea.


Part I

Part II

Part III

Isla: Part I

Warm sand glowing gold. The bright early summer sun; flashing faces. White cloud drifts across the clear blue sky, over the sun. A shadow falls upon us, me and my smiling brother. The breeze off the coast feels cold, but the cloud passes and warmth returns.

The ice cream cones are flecked with colour – green, red, blue. My mother and father read boring books while we play in the safety of the yellow sand, building castles, digging holes and burying one another. The sand gets colder the deeper we dig, but there is comfort in the beach’s embrace.

We see faces in the dark grey rocks, but stay well away. We watch from afar and trace the features in the air with our fingers. “That one looks like daddy!”

Racing down to the water. The sea crawling onto the shore, creeping bit by bit. We run from the waves. Daddy and mummy don’t let us in the sea alone, but they’re still reading their boring books way up the beach. My brother steps into the shallows, stands, smiling. He paddles on, a little further. The wave comes and he is gone.

I’m screaming now and everyone is staring. A man carries my brother from the sea, lays him down on the sand. He’s so pale. My mother is holding me now, crying. She holds my hand so tight it hurts. The man presses my brother’s chest. The fear in my father’s eyes is the most dreadful thing I have ever seen.


Part I

Part II

Part III

Flowers

I bought her a beautiful bouquet of flowers. She was in the kitchen making my dinner when I came in quietly behind her and wrapped my arms about her waist. She jumped.

“Did I frighten you?” I said, playfully.

“Oh no, you just startled me.” She turned and saw the bouquet. “Those are beautiful, are they for me?” she asked, timidly.

“Yes, beautiful flowers for my beautiful wife.” I handed her the flowers.

A single tear dropped from her eye as she blinked.

“Hey, it’s ok,” I said, and planted a soft kiss on the yellowing bruise on her cheek. Tears welled in my eyes too, and I turned her head to look at me. “I love you so much.”

“I love you too,” she said, and I held her tightly.

***

We are a tangle of limbs and flesh. Heat radiates from her body, slick with sweat. Gasps and heavy breaths. Her black hair smells of smoke. There is an urgency about it all, a wild desperation. And then oblivion.

Afterwards we lay there in the ruddy light of her bedside lamp, her wearing nothing but my shirt. She takes two cigarettes out her pack and lights them both, handing me one. We smoke in silence.

***

After dinner we made love, gently, of course. Her yellow hair smelled fresh and clean and dull. We fell asleep and she forgot to put the flowers in water. I was a little annoyed at her neglect – the flowers weren’t cheap – but I tried to let it go, because I know it can be hard for her too sometimes.

***

A cheeseboard and a bottle of fine red wine were waiting for me when I arrived home.

“You’re so sweet,” I said, stroking the hair from her face and kissing her on the forehead. I opened the wine and began to pour.

She grabbed the bottle from me. “Sit down and relax!”

It was a wonderful night, we talked for hours, just like we used to. Eventually I dozed off, and dreamt vague dreams of smoke and fire. When I awoke she was stood in the doorway, eyes red and puffy like she’d been crying.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, still groggy from sleep and wine. Then I saw she was holding my shirt. Suddenly I was alert and standing. “Did you go through my bags?”

“I was going to wash your clothes for you…” her voice was timid. “And then I thought I could smell smoke so I took out each of the shirts…”

I stepped closer. “Alison, listen –”

“And it’s not just smoke. I can smell her, Daniel, smoke and perfume and sex! You’re still seeing her aren’t you?”

“No, Alison!”

“Liar!” She threw the shirt in my face.

***

When I was eight or nine, there was a little girl who used to play with her dolls out on the street. She was very pretty, with long, dark hair. One day I built up enough courage to ask if I could join in her game. She said no. She wouldn’t let me touch her dolls; she said she was scared that I might break them. I was so upset, I think I even cried.

The next day I took a pair of scissors and cut the heads off her dolls in front of her eyes.

***

I come home, drunk. The house is silent as I stumble up the stairs. I feel heavy. She couldn’t see me tonight, so Alison will have to do.

My wife lays in bed, her yellow hair spilled across her face. I know she’s only pretending to be asleep. I go to her, push her hair from her face and kiss her.

She tries to roll away and murmurs, “Honey, let me sleep.” But I don’t stop.

***

“Liar!” She threw the shirt in my face.

I grabbed her arms and tried to hold them by her side, but she was flailing, hysterical. “Alison, calm down!”

“You liar! You said it was over!” She was screaming now, bawling like a child. “You promised me, you bloody bastard!”

I held her still. “Alison, look at me.”

She spat full in my face.

I grabbed a handful of her yellow hair and swung the back of my hand round to crack her hard on the cheek. She crumpled to the floor, staring up at me, dumb with shock, silent. Sometimes she needs reminding who the man of the house is.

Red Hood

Her cloak was made of scarlet canvas, waxed so the rain rolled off. It reached down to her ankles where her boots were covered in the slimy mud of the forest floor, keeping her warm and dry during the deluge as she and her partner trudged through the dark woods. She squeezed the grip of the crossbow concealed underneath, taking comfort in the feeling of the weapon in her hand. It was almost over.

The woods were so different to how she remembered them. The path was now overgrown and wild. Even the smell was different: there was nothing of the scent of wildflowers, only the rain-churned earth and the decay of fallen, rotting leaves. But flowers still grew in the thick of the wood, just off the old track. “Wait here,” said Red, leaving the path. Shortly, she returned, stuffing two fresh-cut flowers into a pocket and her silver dagger into its sheathe.

The two continued on their way, Red and Jack the Woodsman, oil lanterns in their hands casting feeble, ruddy light that could barely touch the darkness around them.

“It shall be over soon, Little Red,” Jack said softly, his axe resting on his shoulder.

Aye, she thought, it shall, but made no reply. She squeezed the grip of her crossbow. It was so close now. Soon she could finally move on. Closure. A new life free from the horrors of her past. So close.

The rain had died down by the time they reached the old house, and the full moon crept through a gap in the clouds to paint the glade in silvery light. The three old oaks stretched over the house with long, twisted limbs – naked, gnarled and grotesque, clawing at the night. The house itself was no better, a haunting ruin of a memory that Red could barely recognise.

The crumbling corpse of the house where Grandmother used to live.

“Hello, my dear!” came the voice of an elderly lady, though Red could not say where from. It seemed to come from everywhere at once: the oaks, the house, the moon. She and jack put their backs together and laid down their lanterns, as the moonlight illuminated all. “Oh what a pretty little red cloak, my dear child! And what do you have underneath? Banana bread, cake, wine, all for me?” She cackled long and loud – a rasping sound that clawed at Red’s courage.
Red drew the crossbow from under her cloak.

“Oh my!” gasped the voice. Again, that clawing cackle.

“Where are you?” roared Jack, hefting his axe in both hands.

“Ah yes, the woodsman, ever the hero. Where am I? Why, right in here.”

The door of the house opened, groaning like some dying beast. Within there was only darkness.
Red trained her crossbow on the open door, watching, waiting in the preternatural stillness of the woods, unmoving and unblinking. Jack was restless by her side, breathing hard and rocking from foot to foot, shifting his grip on the shaft of his axe and grinding his teeth. How long passed? She could not say. But Jack did not have the patience. “We have to go in,” he said finally, and started to move forward.

“Wait!” Something in Red’s voice stopped him dead. “The lanterns,” she whispered, “throw them through the door. Burn her out of the house.”

Jack nodded, collected the lanterns and crept slowly towards the door. Red kept her crossbow steady.

Twelve paces from the house, he stopped. He swung one lantern underarm and tossed it through the doorway. A crash and a flare of flame within. He tossed the second lantern.

A hideous creature rushed forth from the doorway – mottled fur of white and grey and terrible yellow eyes. The stench of death came with it, thick and sickly, catching in Red’s throat and choking her. It let out a vicious howl as it swiped at Jack, sending him crashing to the ground.

The crossbow kicked and hissed, the silver-tipped quarrel burying itself deep in the werewolf’s gut. The howl turned into a sickening scream, the death-cry of a demonic beast. There was never a sound in the world so sweet to Red’s ears.
She walked calmly to the creature, convulsing in the throes of death, and pushed her silver dagger deep into its heart. She felt strangely at peace. “Rest now, Grandmother,” she said, and took one of the flowers from her pocket, laying it on the beast.

Her crossbow reloaded, she made her way to where the woodsman lay. “I’m sorry, Jack,” she said, and raised her weapon.

“No! Wait! Red look, no blood – it didn’t draw blood! I’m not infected! I –”

The crossbow kicked and hissed and Jack was silent.

Red placed the second flower on his chest.

It was finally over. Nothing remained of her old life. She was free to live. The house that was once her grandmother’s blazed in the glade.

Little Red

Once upon a time, thought Lily as she skipped along, there lived a beautiful young princess. In her head the princess had her face and was laying on a bed of pretty flowers, sleeping peacefully and waiting for her prince. She had heard the tale a hundred times and couldnʼt wait to hear it again, Grandmother told it so well.

Turning the corner she came across a bush of bright red roses. The flowers were so pretty she decided to pick one for Grandmother. She set down her basket, reached out… and felt the sharp prick of a thorn. A bead of blood welled from the tip of her thumb. Tears stung her eyes but she bit her lip and stopped herself from crying. She put her thumb in her mouth. It tasted like pennies.

Lily took up the basket and continued on her way, hurrying past Mr Woodsmanʼs house as quickly as she could. She could not say why, but Mr Woodsman made her feel all strange. Perhaps it was his wild eyes. She was almost past his window when the curtains parted. He smiled and waved but Lily walked on like she hadnʼt seen him, escaping to the tale in her head, of the beautiful princess – and now here comes the handsome prince. But she could feel his eyes following her, like insects crawling all over her skin.

She hated passing Mr Woodsmanʼs, it was as if he knew she were coming. Every time she went to visit Grandmother at Three Oaks House, Mr Woodsman would part the curtains just as she walked by. But still, it would never stop Lily from visiting Grandmother.

Grandmother was ill and weak, she had been as long as Lily could remember, and Mother would give Lily grape juice and banana bread to bring to her. She always said it would do her good. Perhaps it did, Grandmotherʼs face would shine like the sun when Lily walked in wearing her scarlet raincoat, carrying her little basket. The thought made her smile, and she forgot all about Mr Woodsman and the prick of the rose.

Mr Wolfe was stood on his lawn as usual, his hands deep in his pockets, smiling as he watched the children wandering home from the park. Mother told her not to talk to him, but Lily liked Mr Wolfe: he was always happy and he always said hello. And he would take a sweet from his pocket and give it to her with a smile, mussing her hair with his huge hand saying: “Donʼt tell your mother, sheʼll have my hide!”

He smiled his usual smile now, as he saw Lily approaching. “Good day, little red!” he called, “off to see your grandmother?” Tufts of hair grew out of his big, funny ears.

“Yes, Mr Wolfe,” replied Lily.

“Oh you are a good child,” he said, reaching deep into his pockets. After a moment he frowned. “I seem to have run out of sweets. There are more inside the house, come along little red!”

Lily went with him into the house. As she entered she looked back at Mr Woodsmanʼs house and saw the curtains jerk shut.

Inside it smelled like Grandmother and Lily smiled and felt at home. She could not understand why Mother would tell her to stay away from this nice man. Old Mr Wolfe smiled. “I think theyʼre upstairs,” he said. “One moment, little red.” He started climbing the staircase.

Lily took a seat, her little red shoes dangling off the floor, thinking once more of her story. The prince has to save the princess, she thought, but what from? She hated monsters, they scared her, and so did witches too.

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! came a banging at the door, so sudden it startled Lily almost to tears.

Mr Wolfe was hurrying back downstairs. “OK, hold on!” he called, “Iʼm coming!”

BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! again, angry and loud – so loud. What was happening? Lily was terribly frightened; tears streamed down her cheeks, her face felt flushed and hot.

Mr Wolfe walked to the door. Glancing into the living room and seeing Lily crying, he said, “Shush, little red, donʼt be afraid,” but his eyes were scared too.

The click of the lock and the door burst open. “Where is she?” demanded a voice. A thumping of footsteps and Mr Woodsman bulled into the living room. His wild eyes settled on Lily, who sat on the floor bawling in fear.

He stopped dead. “What have you done to her?” he said, his voice quiet and hard as stone.

“Youʼre frightening the poor girl,” said Mr Wolfe, pushing past Mr Woodsman. “Donʼt be afraid.” He reached out for her.

“Donʼt you touch her!” howled Mr Woodsman, lurching forward. He grabbed for Mr Wolfe and pulled him from Lily, throwing him across the room with a growl. The old man stumbled, fell. His head hit the edge of the coffee table with a sound that made Lily sick, and he collapsed onto the floor.

And now he lay unmoving, staring sightlessly at the ceiling.

Mr Woodsman stood with tears in his wild eyes, staring at the old man, and Lily could not look away from the dark red pool growing underneath Mr Wolfeʼs head.

And now Mr Woodsman was crouched before her, saying something to her, over and over. “Look at me, Lily,” he said, “look at me.” He took her head in his hands and turned her face to his. “Did he touch you?” he asked in a shaky voice. He was crying. Lily was crying no more. “Donʼt worry, youʼre safe,” and he took her in his arms and lifted her from the floor.

As he carried her out, she squeezed her eyes shut and desperately tried to recall the story of the beautiful princess. But it was no use – each time she closed her eyes all she saw was Mr Wolfeʼs lifeless stare. Outside, the dying light of day cast long, dark shadows and painted the sky red.