Harry’s Birthday

Birthday_candles

I wake early and with a sense of excitement, my blood singing in my ears.

What, what day is it? I can’t find myself. Is it Christmas? The first day of the holidays? My birthday?

I feverishly run through a list of dates in my head, searching for the puzzle piece.

Valentines Day, Thanksgiving, New Years Eve…

Then I remember, and my excitement fades away to nothing.

Today is Harry’s birthday.

Memories float to the surface of my mind. This day, repeated back through my life; of cake and candles, of parties and presents. Of his choppy blonde hair, of his obsession with tractors. His swing set in the garden. The love I saw in his eyes when he looked at me.

Of him, toddling around the house, creating wonderful chaos. Without him everything is so cold and echoing.

When will this pain heal? When will this hurt fade? Not yet – it’s still too fresh a wound.

But, one year, I want to be able to wake up on this day and only see the loveliest of lives… and not the hole he left behind.

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We Were Together

kids
You were five and I was six, and we were together.
You were a princess and I was your prince. Swashbuckling pirates, the fearless captain and mate. A crime fighting duo, superman and catwoman.
We were always together, two halves of a whole. Joined at the hip.
But then your mum began to get anxious. She said that it was time for me to leave. She wanted her daughter to make new friends, better friends than me.
You were loyal. You stood by my side. We weathered the storms, as we always have.
We were together.
_
You were nine and I was ten, and we were together.
We created our own world and made ourselves Queen and King. Our people adored us, and we had mighty battles against dragons and witches and goblin armies that threatened our rule.
We were closer than siblings, closer than spouses. Two peas in a pod. One person in two bodies.
But then your mum realised I was still around and she was angry. She threatened to stop your ballet classes. She made you go round to other little girls houses, girls that liked pink and ponies and parties.
You were loyal. You stood by me. We survived, as we always have.
We were together.
_
You were thirteen and I was fourteen, and we were together.
You were my first girlfriend; I was your first kiss. We went to the cinema together, to school together, shopping together. You laughed at the funny things I said and I told you that you were beautiful.
We were two halves of a whole, joined at the hip, inseparable.
But then your mum found out I was still around, she was terrified. She dragged her daughter to hospital, doctors, shrinks. “You’re thirteen! You shouldn’t still be doing this!” I was labelled as a bad influence.
You began to waver.
We were together less. You kept giving me strange looks and asking questions that were too near to the truth. As you got further away, I got sicker. I was weak, pale, as though I was wasting away. I felt invisible. I was sure I was dying.
I pleaded with you, I begged you, I kissed you, I told you I loved you, but you had stopped listening. I was a ghost, someone you wanted to forget.
I drifted around in the corner of your vision, watching you erase me from your life. But I was never completely gone. You kept me alive, kept believing in me just enough. I was still alive in your memories of me, but barely. Every day it was harder.
_
You were twenty and I was twenty-one. You were strong and healthy and I was nearly dead.
Your mum approached you and asked nervously, “That… boy. Is he still around?”
You turn and glance at me, the translucent ghost in the corner.
“No, mother, I’ve followed your advice. He’s not my friend any longer.” My heart is shattered into so many pieces that it can’t be broken any more.
Your mum nods, relieved. She motions for you to sit down.
“Well… the thing is, dear… he was not a real boy. When you were five, it was okay to have an imaginary friend. But when you were thirteen…” She shudders delicately, reaching out to pat her daughter’s hand in what she probably thinks is a reassuring way. “I hope you understand now. I did it for your own good!”
You pause. I can see your thoughts churning, but you’re too old now for childhood games.
“I know, mother.”
You turn and stare at me. For a moment, the intensity of your gaze brings me to life. For the first time in months I am solid, human, breathing.
But your expression is flint, and I know that it’s all over.
“We were together,” You inform me, your icy voice echoing through your head. “But I have no need for you now.”
I’ve been on the brink of this for seven years, but the finality shocks me to the core. “No! Don’t!” I cry, running to you. I reach for your hand, thinking that if you felt me, you wouldn’t be able to kill me.
But you draw away with a look of pure loathing and turn your back on me.
I know now that I am dead.
Sinking to my knees, I look down at my see-through fingers. A sharp searing pain tears through me as you rip me out of your head. Tears are flooding from my eyes; everything is a watery blur. I can feel myself being undone by you, my seams being torn apart, the colours under my skin merging with the air.
For a brief moment I am suspended in the air. I am everywhere; and then… I am nowhere at all.

Dreaming Adam

Children
I’m at the beach.

The sea is slurping at the sand, toying with small pebbles, pushing them back and forth. The smell of salt is in the cold wind coming off the sea. Children dressed in bright clothes, the only colour in sight, dig and play in the sand. I feel like I’ve been here before, like this has happened before: but I can’t remember when.

“You came.”

I turn.

Behind me stands a young man, his chestnut hair wet from swimming. He’s barefoot, his jeans rolled up to his knees. I know him. He’s Adam. I’ve definitely been here before, I remember this! My sense of deja’vu is making this whole thing feel a little surreal.

“Of course I did,” I tell him, smiling. “You know I can’t refuse you anything!”

He smiles back, but his eyes are worried. He looks like he’s about to say something; but nothing comes, and he closes his mouth.

I feel as though I’m in a play, reading out my lines. This has been said before, done before. “Are you okay?”

He stares at me, his eyes intense and so deep I feel like I’m at the bottom of the ocean.

I feel like I know what should happen next. He’s going to smile, shrug. His line is, ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing’. And then he will take my hand, pull me into the shallows, and we paddle and laugh and get soaked.

I’m so sure what will happen that when he blurts out, “Jenny, you’re in trouble,” I freeze.

Why isn’t he following the script? An odd feeling of fear slides into my heart; by breaking away from the script, he’s broken a rule.

The words jump from my throat without permission. “Don’t say that!” I cry. “Don’t!” If he does, if he does, something terrible will happen, this world will break down…

He speaks over my frantic pleas.

“You thought you’d escaped Dan after New York, but he’s close. He’s right on your tail and closing in. You’ve got to get out of there, now!”

This is wrong. The Adam from this memory couldn’t possibly know these things. This was Adam before any of this started, this was Adam from before New York…

The world feels like it’s spinning. The sound of the seagulls, of the lapping of the sea, children screaming; everything seems to mute. My vision tunnels so I can only see Adam.

“How can you possibly know that? You don’t even know where I am!”

He smiles sadly. “No, I don’t. And I never will. Wake up now, get up and get out! I don’t want you to end up the same as me.”

I’m so dizzy, the world is flying away from me. The bright clothes of the children are so colourful they make my head ache. Adam’s face blurs. The world is pulsing to my heartbeat.

“What are you talking about?” I cry, feeling suddenly alone. My voice echoes in the emptiness of the void.

I can’t see Adam anymore, but his voice is as clear as if he’s talking in my ear.

“I’m dead, Jenny.” He whispers. He speaks haltingly, emotion snapping and splintering his voice. “Daniel killed me. Now stop dreaming and wake up before they get you too!”

The beach disappears; I’m falling through black space, tumbling in empty air, my fingers raking through nothingness for something to hold…

I wake up with a start and tears on my cheeks. Adam’s voice echoes through the emptiness of my head.

Get out… before he kills you too.

Merry Christmas

Christmas Presents

Christmas Day.

At lunch, the little boy squirms, impatient to escape from the dinner table. He pesters and pleads with his father until at last, worn down by the endless complaining, his father sets him free.

His gleaming new toys beckon him from underneath the Christmas tree, and the TV guide lies open, slyly showing all the marvellous movies that are currently on. The boy ignores them both.

He sprints upstairs, switches on the clunky computer and goes on Skype.

As promised, she is online, waiting for him. He double clicks on her name and her face fills the screen, smiling at him from the other side of the world. He hasn’t seen her for seven months.

Her khaki uniform is covered in dust. She smiles like a star in a distant galaxy, distant but warm.

“Merry Christmas, Mommy!”

Driftwood

Driftwood

She has been dislocated in time.

Her bones are made of stone and anchor her in place. Without them, she would have escaped long ago. She is the eye of the storm and everyone else is frantically busy with their own lives, all around her, but she cannot leave.

She’s been washed up on the sea of humanity and lies abandoned on the tideline, like driftwood.

Rules

Jade glanced surreptitiously over her shoulder, then leant towards me.

“Rules are made to be broken, are they not?” She said, her low voice not disguising her sly grin.

Alarm shot through me like adrenaline. “No!” I exclaimed. A couple of heads flicked in our direction. I swallowed, lowered my voice and spoke firmly, “No, Jade, not this one. They’ll find out, and then they’ll never let you return.”

She raised her eyebrows and leant back.

“Jade, I mean it! Can’t you see they’re just longing to get rid of you? Any excuse and-”

Cutting me off with a dismissive wave of her hand, she said lazily,

“Stop your fussing, they’ll never know. Trust me. I’ll be back before lock-up so nobody will even notice I’m gone. And if they do…” Her words ran off significantly.

“Don’t get me involved!” I blurt hastily. Her expression makes my heart shrivel up, but I take a deep breath and say, with as much confidence as I can muster, “I’ve helped you in the past but this is beyond anything you’ve done before. It’s not going to work and I’m not going to end up in prison with you.”

Jade stood up and looked down at me. Half of me wanted to shrink into a tiny ball. The other half was screaming at me to stand up for myself.

“Fine,” She said, her voice oozing contempt. “If you’re going to be a coward, I can manage perfectly well without you.”

She turned on her heel and walked briskly away, her long hair swishing from side to side like a swinging blade.

I squirmed where I sat. My mind buzzed with worries. Worries that she would be caught; worries that she wouldn’t. She might be overstepping the line, but she’s my only friend…

“Jade?” I called hesitantly.

She turned around with raised eyebrows and a question in her eyes.

I bit my lip. “Just… be careful.”

Her smile didn’t hide the malice in her eyes. “Oh, don’t worry – I will!”

And with those words she marched away, leaving me with a twisted stomach and horrible decision to make.

Refugee

I sip the hot drink and feel the skin on my tongue tingle from the burn. It’s heavenly; so rich and strong, the consistency of syrup or melted chocolate. I clasp my hands around the mug and shiver as the warmth rushes up my arms. Raising the mug to my burnt lips, I take another sip.

I close my eyes, and allow myself to think about the others. How cruel this world is, that luck decides who lives and who dies. If one of a million things had happened differently, Randy would be sat in this refugee camp drinking too hot, too strong hot chocolate and I would be the one buried beneath our high school.

If I look back now, I can trace back the cause and effect.

My sister was two years older than me and amazing at everything. My parents adored her and I grew up in her shadow, doing exactly the same things that she had done two years previously; but I could never do anything to her standard.

When she moved up to high school, she joined the school gymnastics club. Soon she was being entered into county, and then regional, and then national competitions and winning everything she tried. She was amazing. When she came home with all her medals and trophies my parents would turn to me and tell me that “if I worked hard that could be me”.

When I moved up to high school, I didn’t join the gymnastics club. I joined the basketball club.

I was the only girl on an entirely male team. At first, I was terrible. I knew nothing about the rules and the boys teased me mercilessly, but every time I felt like giving up I thought what my parents would say. They would compare me to my sister and wonder why I had turned out so badly. So I put my head down and worked like hell. I improved slowly, but a time came when I was officially a member of the team, and we would go and play games against the other schools, and gradually we began to win them.

I wasn’t at school on that day because of a game. It was huge; if we won, we would be entered into the South West tournament, further than we’d ever got. We’d been training for months. I more was terrified than I’d ever been in my life, but somehow, when I stepped into the court, everything fell away. The match was infinitesimally close but we won, and were in the coach on the way home when our coach driver turned up the radio and we heard the news report.

I am alive because I didn’t want to be my older sister. Is that fair? I decided to rebel and my reward is that I get to survive, while my sister, who never did anything wrong, is dead.

Or maybe it’s not my fault at all. Maybe it’s not my fault but pure luck. Maybe an earthquake on the seabed a thousand miles away caused a small disturbance out at sea that became a giant wave that came and swept away our city. Maybe the world is just randomly evil and cares not for who it destroys.

Or maybe we did something wrong. Maybe our city was evil and didn’t deserve to exist, and some God somewhere decided to sweep it off the face of the earth, like a spring cleaner carelessly ripping through the delicate cobwebs of spiders.

Or maybe this was going to happen anyway. Maybe nothing we could have done would have changed the changed the pattern of events. Maybe, in the future, people will look back on this day and say that this was when everything changed, the pivot point on which everything rests. Maybe this was necessary. Maybe all this death and destruction has some ultimate purpose. Maybe there’s some lesson to be found from this mess.

If there is, I can’t see it from here.

 

 

Fog

fog

I remember, when I was little, my Mamma sitting me down by the fire and telling me stories before I went to bed. They were stories with reasons behind them, like “Don’t be cruel to children younger than you,” and, “Always eat what you given.” But I remember, one night, my Mamma telling me a different kinda story. She sat me down on a stool in front of the fire and began brushing out my hair gentle and real slow. Even now, I still remember the feeling of it tugging lightly at my scalp.

“Once there was a valley and in the valley everything was perfect. The grass was green; the soil was rich; and the weather warm and wet. But not many people lived in this valley. Despite it being so nice, people were afeared of it. Because the valley is surrounded by dark, gloomy mountains. And the mountains are cursed.”

Mamma had my full attention now. I stared into the golden fire, my eyes unfocused, focusing on her words.

“The mountains would spew fog that would drag itself down to the valley and swallow the town whole, till everything was grey. Then the fog would play tricks on people, showing them their dead loved ones and whispering words into their ears what turned their minds to soup. If you listen, then you gone for. It take hold of you, the whisper sickness, and you go mad; you try an fight your way out, into the fog, and the fog would swallow you whole. The next morning… they never find any bodies. And then next time the fog come, it got one extra loved one trapped in its belly, whispering lies.”

I was shivering by now, despite the hot fire flickering at my feet. Mamma turned me round to face her, and her face was so serious I was scared. Her voice was low and urgent.

“This is why you can’t go out at night, you understand? This is why you’ve got to hurry home from school. Because I don’t ever want to lose you and see your face in the fog.”

I nodded, partly out of fear for the fog, partly out of love for my Mamma.

She smiled and sighed with relief. She turned me back round again and carried on brushing out my hair.

“You’re a good girl,” She said softly. “Such a good girl.”

Hungry

The meal had been cooked to perfection.

For hours now I’ve been slaving away in the kitchen, washing, chopping, steaming, cooking and roasting. Now, at last, it’s ready. The table is laid and the drinks poured. The joint of beef sits proudly in the center of the table, glistening with herbs. The smell is delicious. I scan the table for anything I’ve missed, then call up the stairs;

“It’s lunchtime!”

By the time I’ve walked round the table and taken my seat, I can hear the thunderous footsteps of the twins racing down the stairs. Charlie bursts in first, with Dan hot on his heels. They laugh breathlessly and throw themselves into their seats, talking and joking raucously.

Those boys, I think, partly in amusement and partly in bewilderment. Where do they find all their energy?

The heavy tred of my husband comes down the hallway from his study. As he enters, he sniffs appreciatingly and smiles.

“This looks wonderful, Mary.”

A smile springs to my lips. “Thanks.”

He takes his place, pulls the joint towards him and carefully begins carving the meat. The twins begin to bicker about who was going to get the biggest piece.

The last seat at the table remains empty.

“Where’s Andria?” I ask over the twins argument.

My husband raises his head from his carving, and pulls a ‘I don’t know,’ face. The twins shrug. “In her room?” Dan suggests.

“I’ll go get her!” Charlie exclaims.

“No, I will!”

“I said first!”

I interject before it turns into another argument.

“Charlie, you go.”

He jumps up triumphantly and rushes from the room and up the stairs.

Dan turns his puppy eyes on me. “Awww, Mum!”

I smile inwardly and give him the plate with the largest slice of meat to shut him up. It works.

Moments later, Charlie charges down the stairs and sits back down. Andria follows more sedately, sitting down noiselessly. I notice she’s wearing a large knitted jumper despite the temperature. I pass over her plate and fill my own with potatoes, carrots and peas.

Soon everyone is piling their plates, passing round the gravy dish and digging in. Charlie begins talking about some football game he and Dan are in next weekend, with my husband occasionally interjecting with questions.

I turn to Andria and watch as she cuts her meat into smaller and smaller pieces.

“Hey, aren’t you hungry?”

She glances up, then continues to stare at her place. “Not really.”

“But Sunday roast is your favourite!”

Her voice has an edge to it I don’t understand. She sounds… defensive. Almost angry. “Yeah, well, not today.”

I watch her in silence, my brow creased. What’s wrong? Why is she upset?

“Are feeling okay?” I ask quietly.

“Yes,  Mum, I’m fine!” She says, and now the anger in her voice is unmistakable.

I raise my eyebrows. “Don’t bite my head off, I was just wondering why you aren’t eating your favourite meal-”

“For goodness sake!” She says loudly, standing up.  “I’m just not hungry! Why do you have to make such a big deal out of everything?”

The conversation grounds to a halt and four pairs of eyes stare at Andria. I look closer at her, and my thoughts start travelling on a path I don’t like.

Baggy jumpers. Cutting up her food. “I’m not hungry.” And other things as well… changing from packed lunch to school dinners. Going to other friends houses for tea. Going out running every night, on top of Gymnastic training. Weighing herself. Looking in the mirror all the time. And how quiet she’s become…

How can I have missed this? How can I have been so blind?

I stand up slowly and look her in the eye. I feel like I’m seeing her for the first time. Her cheeks are concave,  slightly hollow, making her look gaunt and a little skull-like. Her hands, in fists by her sides, are so bony I can count her tendons and her wrists are worryingly thin. The silence in the room is ringing in my ears. I hold onto my chair to keep upright.

“Honey… Are you eating normally?”

For a moment I think I’m wrong and my heart flutters with relief.

Then I see the anxiety flood into her eyes. Her face creases like a paper bag left in the rain and she begins to cry. I go to her and hold her in my arms, sorrow like an undigested meal lying heavy in my stomach. I stroke her hair as she sobs, wishing that now we had found out it would all be over… but knowing that this was only the beginning.

Midnight Train Station

The train station is as brightly lit up as a shop display and running like clockwork. An announcement drifts across the platforms and, minuites later, a trains sweeps in and hisses to a halt. Everything is running perfectly.

But there isn’t a soul there.

The empty trains arrive and the exausted doors wheeze open then stand, for minuites on end, waiting for passengers that will never climb on. A rusty ‘way out’ sign creaks very slowly back and forth. The vending machines stand like sentry guards, their tired rows of unwanted chocolates illuminated for no-one to see. A disembodied voice echoes forlornly in the silence, reminding passengers not to leave their baggage unattended. Litter scrapes across the concrete, swirling in mini cyclones, propelled by wind from a passing train; a train with row upon row of empty seats.

It’s a ghost town, with trains full of nothing but air.

Ghost

The worst thing is, I can’t tell them. I’ve become a ghost. I’m watching them, all of them, and even though it breaks my heart I can’t stop. And every time I see their faces, hear the terrible sadness in the words, I want to tell them everything. I want them to see me and know.

Is this selfish, or very selfless? If I’ve saved their lives but at the cost of terrible pain, was it worth it? I just don’t know anymore. I wish I could find that perfect certainty again; but ever since I chose this path, I’ve done nothing but doubt.

I feel like I’m underwater; I can’t tell which way is up and which is down. I’m living off them but their pain is killing me. I can’t cope with much more of this.

Soon, perhaps, I will stop haunting them and let them live the best way they can. More than anything else, I just wish I could tell them how sorry I am.

Her Final Dance

The bullet hit her directly between her shoulder blades.

She arched her back, her head thrown back and her mouth open in a soundless scream.

Her shoulders snapped back unnaturally, her arms bent the wrong way and her fingers splayed.

She tried to walk but her knees were buckling. She rose up on tiptoe, silhouetted against the bright city, standing tall and proud for the last time.

Her vision blurred. The yellow streetlights turned into floating circles, swimming in her foggy vision.

She fell slowly, her knees hitting the ground first, and then her stomach and her arms. Her head bounced once, and then was still.

A dark stain was spreading across her t-shirt. The cars roared by, their headlights flashing on her body. The noise of a thousand vehicles was deafening.

But not a single car stopped.

Sleeping Beauty

She looks beautiful.

Her lips are small, heart shaped and a soft pink colour that reminds me of my grandmothers’ roses. She’s smiling slightly, as though she’s having happy dreams. Her eyes are closed, her dark lashes standing out against porcelain white skin. A faint blush rests on her sharply defined cheekbones.

She is beautiful.

She looks like she’s asleep, as though any moment, she could wake up and smile, and we could talk together again. But she doesn’t wake. She’ll never wake. This is no ordinary slumber.

Everyday I’ve been to see her. Everyday she’s been trapped in this cursed sleep. I’ve sat and watched as her skin has turned as white as a ghost and her cheek have hollowed. She’s lost so much of her vitality that she’s barely recognisable as herself. And today is the last day. The last visit.

Behind me, the door opens with a familiar swish. I turn. A young man, the Doctor, is guiding her parents into the room. Her mother has snail trails of tears shimmering on her cheeks but she looks remarkably controlled. Her father’s fingers are shaking like a miniature earthquake and he keeps swallowing, his large Adams apple bobbing curtsies. In his eyes I see the pain I feel reflected back at me. He’s trying not to cry. My heart goes out to them both. Losing a girlfriend is one thing, but losing your only daughter…

“I’ll give you some time to say goodbye,” the Doctor says gently, then steps back to give us some space.

Her mother reaches out and squeezes her daughters’ hand. She tries to smile but her mouth won’t obey. Weariness is evident in her face, her hunched back, the exhausted way she holds herself. She looks old. Bending down, she kisses her daughter on the forehead, as delicately as a butterfly.

“I love you, my sleeping beauty,” she whispers brokenly. Then she straightens and moves away for her husband.

He gazes down at his beautiful daughter, his face drowning in sorrow. Sitting down on the hospital bed, he puts a hand on her shoulder. Trying to speak, the words refuse to come. Swallowing, he says gruffly, “Goodbye, kiddo.”

Then he loses control and the tears torrent out of him, spilling down his cheeks. He lets them come. His shoulders shake but he stays deathly silent. I shiver – there’s nothing more terrifying than seeing a grown man cry. His wife puts an arm around his shoulders.

“Come on,” she says coaxingly. He is carefully led out the room. The Doctor follows and I watch them talking. After a moment, they seem to reach a decision and the Doctor comes back inside.

“Her parents didn’t want to watch. Do you want to stay?” I nod, not trusting myself to speak. I expected him to chuck me out. A rush of gratitude floods through me and for a moment my legs feel so weak I can barely stand.

I look down at her. I know that everyone has dismissed her as dead, but I’ve never let myself believe that. Every day I’ve come and I’ve waited for her to wake up. But today, they’re turning off the life support. It seems too soon, far too soon, and I suddenly realise that I never said goodbye.

Leaning down, I kiss her on the lips, careful not to disturb her. She smells of memories, of hot summer days and laughter: a reckless kind of happiness. She smells of her own sweet perfume. She smells of home.

My throat tightens and my eyes are burning like they’re full of acid. Her face is beginning to blur, swimming dizzily before me. But through the veil of water obscuring my vision, I could have sworn that I saw…

“Stop!” I shout. The Doctor jumps and turns around. His finger is hovering over the power button. “Don’t, I just saw her move!”

He looks at me pityingly. “I’m sorry, but she’s suffering grade six brain damage. There’s no way she could move, it’s imposs-“

He breaks off with a strangled gasp, pointing a wavering finger at her sleeping body.

“She did move!” He said disbelievingly.

“Quick, get her parents!” I order.

The Doctor runs so fast that he trips over an oxygen tank.

I look down at her, waiting, breathless.

Her eyes move slightly under her eyelids. Her mouth opens, just a fraction. Then her fingers twitch and her breathing quickens, her chest rising and falling the ebb and flow of the tide. I cling to her bed so tightly my knuckles turn snow-white.

Her mouth opens fully, she shakes her head, her hands clutch the bed sheet…

…And she opens her eyes.

Nothing could have prepared me for this. Everyone thought she was dead, that her brain had turned into baby food, that she would never be conscious again. But her eyes shine like stars and she pushes herself up into a sitting position. She’s not just awake, she’s alive. I’d forgotten how beautiful her eyes were. A slice of sky must’ve fallen and been caught between her dark lashes.

“Kyle,” She murmurs, and reached out her arms to me. I hug her fiercely, promising myself that no matter what happens, I’ll never let go of her again.

“We thought you were dead!” I whisper, emotion breaking my voice in half.

The door swishes open and her parents gasp loudly. “You’re awake!” Her father cries. They run to her bedside and promptly begin to smother her in kisses. The Doctor comes back in, followed by another medic in scrubs who seems to be his superior.

“…for twelve months, a level six coma, little or no reaction to outside stimuli, and then she wakes up! Never seen anything like it.” He takes the clip chart from the end of her bed. Flipping through it, his caterpillar eyebrows fly upwards.

“This is a miracle.”

The Doctor echoes his words. “A medical miracle.”

“What happened?” Her father asks in a shocked voice.

“I kissed her! I kissed her, and she woke up!” I exclaim. She smiles at me and I feel a hot ache in my chest that’s part pain, part pleasure. “He’s right, he woke me up.” She says seriously. “I felt it. The kiss. I felt like I was underwater, and it pulled me up.” Her mother brushes a stray lock of hair from her forehead.

“My sleeping beauty. My darling sleeping beauty. You are awake at last.”

Blood-Red Leaves

The forest was blood-red. The leaves in the trees had turned burgundy and they covered the ground like a red carpet. It was unnaturally silent: no birds sang from the treetops, no animals rustled in the undergrowth. Only the fingers of the black trees twitched, and the blood-red leaves clinging to the dark branches swayed eerily.

I walked slowly through the forest, trying to keep as quiet as possible. Not that it’ll make any difference, I reminded myself. She already knows I’m here. I shivered and wrapped my arms across my chest.

There was no path to follow. The trees closed in overhead, their fingers and blood-red leaves blocking out the sunlight. I carried on walking, knowing that if she wanted to talk to me, she’d choose somewhere where she could easily trap me. Sure enough, after a couple more minutes, I stumbled across a small clearing.

Brown grass, covered in the dying red leaves, grew wild. Although the trees were leaning in, their branches stretching over the clearing, none grew inside the grassy expanse. It was empty apart from a gnarled tree stump in the centre. I walked over and sat down. The minutes stretched by like years and I was beginning to think that she would keep me here until I was old and grey when a voice echoed through the woods.

It seemed to come from everywhere at once. It hissed through the leaves like wind, rumbled through the ground like thunder. The voice was as old as forever and as youthful as a child. Her voice was wise and cruel and clever and bitter and my heart pounded at the sound of it. It was her.

“You dare enter my dominion?” She thundered furiously. “Before I kill you, tell me why you dared to set foot in my forest.”

My hands were trembling like a miniature earthquake, so I sat on them. “Please, good lady, I come to beg your help.” I said, wishing my voice wouldn’t quaver like a child’s’.

This time her voice came from behind me. It was quieter and but several hundred degrees colder. “If I agree, what will you offer me in exchange for this?”

I didn’t turn around. Speaking to the trees, I answered, “My lady, I do not have much, but I can offer you my money. I have over two thousand denra at home and I would be very happy for-”

“What need do I have for human money?” she cried mockingly. “Your useless lumps of metal are worthless!” Her spiteful laughter made the trees shake. The groans of the tree branches filled the air. I sat dead still on the tree stump, shivering. I have nothing to bargain with. She will surely kill me!

The trees grew still again and the unnatural silence stretched onwards. I strained to hear her, wondering if she was creeping up on me so she could kill me. I wanted to turn around, but I was frozen with fear. Suddenly, she hissed in my ear, making me jump. “I crave something far deeper than wealth.” She paused tantalizingly, enjoying my fear. “I will help you, but only if you give me yourself in return.”

“Myself?” I asked, terror restricting my throat. She was right behind me! I wanted to turn around but I couldn’t move.

“Yes…” She hissed. Her hand landed on my shoulder, imprisoning me. Her nails dug deep into my skin. “Give me your soul, and I will give you what you want.”

I hesitated. I needed help so desperately, I was willing to do anything… but my soul? Was it worth it? Doubt filled me and I was about to refuse when a shrewd little voice spoke up. If you don’t give her what she wants, you won’t leave here alive. If you are to die, at least get her help in the process.  I tried to speak but my mouth was bone dry so I nodded instead.

“Good.” She breathed. I could almost see her cruel smile. Her cold fingers stroked my cheek, her nails scratching my skin. “Now run home, little human, and you’ll find the help you needed has already arrived.”

I didn’t hesitate. Everything inside of me wanted to get away from her as quickly as I could. I jumped up and speed towards the edge of the clearing. But before I plunged into the forest I stopped. I don’t know what it was, but something in me made me turn and look back. Maybe I just wanted to see her. Maybe I wanted to show her I wasn’t afraid. Whatever it was, it made me turn and look at the clearing.

But the clearing was empty. The gnarled tree stump sat in the centre, alone. I frowned, looking closer, not believing that she could disappear that fast. Then I saw the darkness under the blood-red trees and froze. The shape was tall, taller than me, and barely recognisable as a person. The shadow shifted slightly and I caught a glimpse of scaled skin, talons for hands. Evil seemed to seep from it the darkness like a foul smell. The temperature dropped and I shivered in the sudden dark.

Fear clenched a fist around my throat. My feet seemed to have turned to stone.

Then the darkness hissed, in a voice that was absolutely devoid of humanity, “I will collect my payment at the next full moon.”

I turned and fled.

Unease

There once was a young girl, who lived a perfectly ordinary, simple and nondescript life. She woke alone, she ate alone, she worked alone, and she went to sleep in a vast, empty bed. She thought that she was perfectly happy and content.

But one day, as she sat spinning wool, she realised that she felt uneasy. A feeling, a tiny thought, had crept inside her. It was small, vague, like a mist over her mind. She carried on spinning, trying to dismiss the niggling doubt, and for a while she was able to ignore it.

That night, as she lay in bed, the feeling returned with more strength. It slipped inside her and took root. It was unease: a strange feeling that something was wrong, but not knowing what. Nothing is worse than an unnameable fear. She stared up at the ceiling, wishing she could fall asleep and escape. But even when she did slip away, her dreams were full of darkness.

As the days went by, the feeling didn’t leave her. It grew and intensified and became an obsession. A sentence kept coming into her head, pounding endlessly through her brain until it became a constant rhythm drumming in the background:  Something is wrong! Something is wrong!

It was strongest when she was idle, so she busied herself around her small two-roomed house. She washed and cleaned and tided and dusted until her house was cleaner than it had ever been; but the foreboding remained. It wasn’t a small thought in the back of her mind: it was in her body, her stomach, her bones. It was everywhere and everything and in every corner of her mind.

In one of her calmer moments, she sensed something above the terrible unease. It’s as though there’s a storm on the horizon: something is coming. Something is about to snap.

Her life stopped. She barely slept. She didn’t eat. She spun wool like a mad woman, driving the wheel so fast it blurred out of sight. She paced up and down, up and down her small house. Every night she tossed and turned dozed fitfully, sobbing in her sleep. Her skin appeared to shrink, sharply defining her bones. Her young face looked gaunt and haunted in the mirror. The terrible unease filled her and consumed her and drove her to the edge of despair.

One night, when the moon was especially bright, she lay on her bed and stared at the ceiling. She was desperately unhappy; she couldn’t escape the awful feelings any more. They had possessed her.

Weak and exhausted, she tossed and turned through the night. In her broken state, it was easy for a fever to sneak past her fallen defences and force itself into her body. She tossed and turned and sweated and moaned until there was nothing left…

…Nothing at all.

She sat up. For the first time in weeks, she didn’t feel uneasy. She felt nothing. She was absolutely numb, and as empty as a burst balloon. She stood up and walked through her immaculate house in a daze. Her eyes were unfocused, staring straight ahead at nothing.

All the time she’d spent cleaning and tidying, all the years she’d lived in her small house: but now she felt nothing for it. She no longer cared. She unlocked the door and walked out, leaving the door wide open and the key still in the lock.

Barefoot, and wearing only a thin nighty, she walked. The moon was round and incredibly bright, like a silver penny suspended among the stars. The world felt unreal, like a painting: totally still and silent, painted in only two colours: silver moonlight and black shadow. Nothing moved and she began to feel that none of this was real: that if she reached out to touch a tree, it was dissolve into smoke in her hands. The thought made her shiver and she increased her pace slightly.

She walked and walked, at first through streets and past dark houses, and then out into the wilderness, over hills and forests and grasslands. She walked without pausing, without resting, a steady trot onwards to nowhere.

Faintly, through her numbness, a thought arose… something is wrong with Time. It’s stopped. She wondered how long she’d been walking for. Followed by another; or perhaps Time is flying past so quickly that it only appears to be staying still.

She continued walking through the unchanging world. The silence was beginning to get to her. There was no breeze to move the trees, no people awake to talk, and no dogs to howl or bark. It was days, or perhaps years, until feeling came back to her. A tiny crack opened in the fog of numbness, and through it came a faint feeling that her journey was almost at an end. Relief, satisfaction, and a weary ache. Some time after this, she came across a little house. Instantly, she knew that this was what she had been searching for.

She had walked past hundreds of houses on her never-ending journey, but in each the windows were dark and shadows seemed to spill from the doorways, like black breath being exhaled from cavernous mouths. She had hurried on past them, uncaring. But this house was different.

The door had been flung open and warm, golden light spilled through. All the windows were lit up, light spilling from every pore of the house. The small crack in her fog of indifference widened, lengthened, was joined by multitudes more; and then, in one great mighty rush, the numbness and emptiness that had been constricting her fell away, and a rush of gladness filled her. The force of the emotion was so great that she stopped in her tracks.

Free! She thought with joy. She embraced her emotions, remembering the unique touch of each of them. Taking another step, she winced. Mentally examining her body, she was shocked. I must’ve walked a long way, she realised with surprise, because I’m aching all over. My bones, my hips, my back. She tried to touch her toes but stopped before she’d even reached halfway, gasping with pain. What’s happened to me?

She turned her attention to the house, placing her fists on her hips and scrutinising it. And the more she gazed at the house, the more she recognised it. It was just so familiar – she knew that, if she went inside, she would know exactly were every little thing belonged. That’s the window to the bedroom, she thought. And she was right.

She headed for the house again, but found herself hobbling. I hurt all over, she grumbled. But despite her aches and pains, she hurried towards the house as quickly as she could. I know this house. Why?

She walked through the open door and was not surprised to find herself in a living room. She turned to close the door and saw that the sky was no longer as black as coal: like ink that washes out of a garment, the darkness had begun to fade away. Colour had returned to the world. And soon the sun will rise, she thought, and her heart lifted in happiness.

She closed the door. The key was in the keyhole so she locked it and slipped it into the pocket of her nighty. Turning around, she peered around at the little living room. A fire flickered warmly in the hearth, and an old rocking chair stood close to the fire. A door led off to what she knew was the bedroom. The lady chuckled. I love that old chair. She hobbled over to it and slowly sat down.

Half-finished knitting sat nearby, as though it was only a minute ago that that it had been laid down by its owner. It just seemed so natural to reach out and pick it up. It uncoiled to become a long pink and yellow scarf.

Without thinking, she slipped the thick needles between her knobbly fingers and began to knit. Soon, the clackity-clack of needles filled the warm room. The lady smiled, feeling a strange but pleasant sense of dejá-vu. Soon she was rocking back and forth, humming a little song to herself that she didn’t know she knew. Absentmindedly, she thought, yellow and pink; they’re her favourite colours.

She slammed her feet down and stopped rocking so suddenly she nearly tipped herself off the chair. The thought stopped her in her tracks. At first, she was confused. How do I know that? How do I know that this scarf is the favourite colours of someone I’ve never met? Then she began to worry. What on earth am I doing? I’ve walked into someone else’s house, and now I’m just sitting here doing their knitting! She looked down at the long mess of wool. I don’t even know how to knit! On the verge of hysteria, she tossed it to the side and stood up, panic thrashing in her heart.

She caught sight of movement behind her and turned, startled and afraid. A mirror hung on the wall and, for a moment, the lady stared at it in disbelief. Her feet walked forwards without her consent. Shock stopped her thoughts.

She was old. And not even middle-aged old; she was ancient. Her skin was dark from years of hard work in the sun and so heavily wrinkled she resembled an apricot stone. Her eyes looked like they’d shrunk backwards into her head and her lips were small and puckered. She looked like a happy woman, though – not bitter and mean. Her eyes twinkled mischievously and her lips curved up in the corners. Hours ago, I was a young girl. I don’t understand!

She had opened her mouth and was examining her teeth when the loud creak of the bedroom opening made her freeze in fear. There’s no time to hide! She thought in a panic. An old man shuffled through the doorway. She stood, frozen in position, ready to run or fight or apologise… but then she looked at him: really looked at him. His hair was thin and as grey as a rainy day, framing his heavily lined face. His eyes were wise, old, and so warm. When he saw her, his eyes lit up with love and he smiled. She knew him.

Without realising it, she smiled in return. An unexpected thought hit her: I love this man and he loves me.

Suddenly, she understood everything. The scarf. Her sudden aches and pains. Her reflection. I know this house because it’s my house; I know this man because he’s my man. That scarf is for my youngest granddaughter, and she’ll be six in a fortnight. I know all this because this is my life. I’ve walked through time into my own future.

Her husband opened his arms and without hesitating, she went into them. Cocooned in his warm embrace, she realised that not only was this her life, but this was the life she’d always wanted.

She thought back to her old house and her old life. She’d spent it alone, doing the same thing day after monotonous day. She’d seen no-one, spoke to no-one, loved no-one. Totally alone.

And then the uneasiness made me change. Made me leave. And I walked through time until found a time I was happy. And here I’m determined to stay. I’d rather be ancient and happy than youthful and alone.

She closed her eyes and breathed in the familiar smell of her husband. A smile curved her lips.

This is my life. I’m home.

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