Scarlet's Way Out - A Short Story
She swung back and forth, higher and higher, steadily, consistently, rhythmically, back and forth. Reaching toward the clear blue sky, away. The sun warmed her, caught her red curls and lit them up. She smiled to herself, her cheeks rising and her green eyes filling with warmth. Her feet dragged through the bark chippings on the ground, making a clicking sound as her sandals slid through them. The old chain of the swingset creaked. Higher and higher, she swung. Back, click, forth, creak.
The grass around her was short, heaps of it dotted around, recently cut. It smelt fresh, warm, safe. The sky was bright, empty and peaceful. An ocean of green below and an ocean of blue above, just her in between, the world and the peace. These moments were always the best ones, the peaceful ones, the safe ones. Happiness was not always a given but, in peace, contentment was easier to find.
The gravel path a few feet in front of her made a soft sound as feet fell on it. The old man was coming down it from the right. Back, click. His raven sat on his shoulder, dutifully, watching, waiting. The man’s grey trousers were patched at the knees, his woolen vest dotted with dirt stains. Forth, creak. His receding grey hair shone, almost white in the sun. He strode with confidence and stability but it was a leisurely step, carrying him down the gravel path, toward the swings. As he drew nearer he smiled softly, the slight raising of his lips barely noticeable, but full of warmth, she knew.
His raven squawked and took flight. The old man stopped. The girl, on her swing, went higher, higher, back, click, forth, creak. The man stood and followed his bird with his eyes as it flew around him, arcing and swooping in a steadily growing oval shape. Another bird landed on the path, only a few paces from the old man. The raven swooped, slowly, falling to the ground with a menacing flick of its wings. A batting of the wind, a soft rustle. The raven stared at the other bird, squawked and stepped forward. Back, click, forth, creak. Higher. The newly arrived bird held its ground, cocking its head to one side, curious as to this ravens intentions. The raven, drawing closer, closer, sprang forward, beak outstretched. The bird screeched, drawing back, pain seeping from it, a bloody hole in its right breast.
The old man looked bemused, he winked at the girl, knowingly, comfortingly. Higher. Back, click. The raven stepped to the left, lunged again, missed, lunged, missed, lunged. The bird screeched again, more blood dripping from its breast wound. It batted its wings, drew itself up to full height and went to fly upwards. The raven lunged, twice, quickly, drilling at the bird's wing, Feathers flew, torn free, blood spilled onto the gravel as holes appeared. The bird rushed into the raven, using its head to knock it back, closer to the bark. Forth, creak. The bird pressed the attack, lunging with its beak, the raven jumped back, back, back again. Taking flight it seemed to leap over the bird. It landed to its side and, three times, in swift succession, pecked at the bird's’ wing. Then, without pause, pecked at its eye, its face, over and over again. Peck, screech, peck, squawk, peck, peck, peck. A soft sound as the bird, breathing lightly, bleeding heavily, collapsed. The raven, its beak and body red with blood, flew back up to the old man’s shoulder, squawked and then settled.
Back, click. Forth. The old man pulled a tissue from his left pocket and wiped the raven's beak and feathers, gently, with care and affection. Creak. Higher, higher. He pulled something else from his left pocket and held his hand out at the raven’s beak. The raven looked to enjoy its reward but there was another screech. The bird, collapsed on the gravel, was not breathing. A larger bird stood near it, looking, with accusation, at the raven. With a subtle nod from the old man the raven took flight, its wings beating the air. Creak, higher, higher, higher.
The raven landed, several paces from its new prey.
Higher, higher. The new bird flew up and plunged down toward the raven, trying to torpedo into its back. The old man looked to shout but his bird deftly flew upward and span the bird around with a simple flick of its wings. The bird, out of control, crashed to the ground,
Forth, creak. Back. Click. Higher, higher, higher. The raven landed, next to the body of its first victim, its chest out, proud, righteous. Angry. The body on the ground shifted, almost imperceptibly, as breath left it, softly, and was drawn in, softer still. Life. The larger bird, the old man thought a female bird, regained its balance. Locked its eyes with the raven’s. Neither moved.
Forth, creak, higher, higher, higher, higher. The raven stepped forward, slowly, spread its wings, flew, low to the ground and landed next to the bird. The bird turned away and then span back, slashing the side of the raven, ripping its wing, tearing feathers. A harsh scream came from its mouth, the old man cried out. The raven reared back, rammed its body into the bird, lunging, pecking, tearing, screaming. Rage sprang forth. The bird, wounded, pecked, pecked, pecked again. The raven, bleeding, heavily, screamed, pecked, pecked. Back, click, forth. Higher.
The old man looked at his raven, looked at Scarlet. He began to walk, cautiously, toward her. Higher, higher. Forth, creak. Back. Forth. Click. Creak. Higher.
Her small, pale hands opened. She released the chains of the swings. Higher, higher. Falling, rushing. Air. Wind. Squawk. Peck. The old man stepped toward her as her body lay on the bark chippings, still aside from her chest, rising, falling, slowly. Her eyes blinking, slowly, softly, the blue sky, the sun. The bird took one last lunge. Missed. The raven tore its right eye out. Ripped at its wings. Slammed into its back. Spinning, lunging, charging, batting its wings. Peck, peck, peck.
The old man looked back at his raven. He saw it take flight and come towards him. He turned back to the girl, reached out and touched her arm.
The bird bath was just over a metre high, with a wide, shallow basin, filled to the brim. The robin dipped its head in, eagerly lapping at the cool, still water. Jay sat underneath the oak tree, resting her head against its bark, gazing up at the gnarled branches that stretched out before her. She ran a hand through her gray hair, from the thick end at the roots down to the thin, split ends draped across her narrow shoulders. She smiled as the robin, content with its drink, looked up at her and took flight to land on the end of one of the branches she could see.
The sun was out, obscured only occasionally by a passing white cloud, full and fluffy. The grass beneath her was soft and cool, long but not wild. The small stream on the other side of the bird bath made a soft trickling sound as its waters broke over the stones that were scattered throughout it. Accompanying it its steady rhythm was the soothing sound of the leaves on the oak branches rustling as they brushed past one another, disturbed only by a sharper rustle as the robin decided to swoop up or down, from one branch to another, chasing the gaps of sun that shone through its thick covering of leaves.
Listening to the sounds of the stream, the sounds of the leaves, the sounds of the robin, basking in the warm glow of the sun, Jay slowly relaxed her muscles, let her head roll softly to one side and drifted into a summer nap.
“Jay!” Short, sharp. Distant.
“Jay!?” A bark, closer.
“Jesus, Jay! Wake up!” Closer, footsteps, heavy, quicker than walking but not a run. Panting. Jay’s head snapped up, her hair moving sharply. She blinked her eyes open to see Roy, half running, half walking, with the redheaded girl, collapsed, in his arms. “Roy.” She said it with a mix of realisation and urgency. She stood and walked swiftly towards him, together they slowly, gently lowered the girl into the soft grass under the shade of the oak tree. The girl's eyes were closed, Jay touched her forehead, listened to the rhythm of her breathing, checked the strength of her pulse. “What happened?”
“She just collapsed! The birds...the birds were fighting, she was on her swings and looked scared. I, I went over to reassure her, touched her arm and then this.”
“Jesus Roy. You didn’t even bring him back did you?” Jay glowered at him, the harsh, stern, judging eyes that only years of marriage can seek to justify. Roy didn’t respond but he did look away from Jay and the girl. “Go and find him.” He didn’t move and again he didn’t respond. “Now.” Her tone was stone cold, dead and serious, her eyes fixed on him. Roy stood and turned, rubbing dirt from his elbows as he did so. He walked off without making eye contact or uttering a single word. Jay turned back to look at the girl, running a hand, affectionately, through her soft, red curls.
“Oh you poor, sweet girl.” Jay stood and went to the bird bath, the robin, perched on a branch above, followed her movements closely. She took off her cardigan and folded it into a small, flannel like bundle before thinking better of the idea and heading to the stream. She knelt and, with one hand steadying herself on the bank, soaked the cardigan in the water, feeling the cool of it flow over her submerged hand. She stood and returned to the girl, gently placing the wet cardigan on her forehead, careful to brush any stray red strands of hair aside.
Jay could tell the girl was dreaming, she could see her eyelids twitching. Jay made a shushing sound with her mouth and gently lifted the girl, carrying her over to the base of the oak tree and sitting her against its wide trunk. The blue sky was growing darker, a thick band of white cloud had moved in but was being followed by grey cloud, growing darker as it moved overhead. The robin, upon seeing the sky, took flight from its bird bath, taking one last look at its haven amongst the branches before flying to the edge of the cloud, towards blue sky and out of sight.
Looking down from the darkening sky Jay could see Roy stomping alongside the banks of the stream, making his way back towards her. Before his face came fully into view she could tell he was nervous. He walked with sunken shoulders and kept his head fixed on his walking feet. He did not look up to the sky, not even for a brief glance. He had not found his bird, his raven, the one that had been fighting as the girl collapsed.
He looked up up at her as he drew nearer. His eyes said it all.
He had not found his raven.
It started to rain.
The Church was dark, the only light was that which shone in through the small windows and the small doors which permitted access. The larger doors were sealed shut, as they had been for decades. There was not a single sound to be heard inside its walls. The stone sarcophagi, lined up against the far wall on the left, sat watching, the ones whose heads remained keeping a stoney eye on the ground level, its main hall and altar. The stone pulpit stood empty, waiting for a man to deliver a sermon. The old windows, thick with dust, still allowed light in to illuminate the ornate marble floor, empty, deprived of any congregation.
The rough hewn stone steps on the left and right walls, leading down to the lower level, were silent, no footsteps echoed upon them. The large mass of ants, which clung to the walls overlooking the bars to the basilica's basement, did not stir. No man nor light source nor sound had passed them as far back as could be remembered.
On the cool grass outside lay some ruined stone pillars, a decaying archway overlooking them, a tower on one side, its door locked and a large rectangular building opposite it, its door also locked. Walking over the gravel path, through the wrought iron gates and making his approach to the basilica, it occurred to him that since finding both of those doors locked he had never even once considered trying to force them open.
His brown, faux leather sandals crunched across the gravel and took him onto the grass, its soft tips brushing against his bare toes. He rubbed his wrists as he drew near the doors to the basilica, he had been inside once. He stepped out of the light of day and into the dusty half light, taking care not to make eye contact with those stony faces to his left. He made straight for the staircase in front of him, the one on the right hand side of the basilica had wide steps as far as he could recall, which was useful when your feet were as large as his. He stepped down them slowly, taking one at a time as he allowed his eyes to adjust from the half light of the ground level to the dim murk of this lower section.
He supposed that, centuries ago, when it had first been built and during the days when it was used, there would been sconces on the wall for torches. No such sconces remained and he had not found any other light source on his journey here. He reached the floor of the lower level and stepped through the doorway, glancing nervously at the swarm of ants on the wall to the left just before it, taking care not to disturb them. Going through into the next room he stepped between the rows of pillars, thankful for the light coming in through the circular window on the far wall, shining despite the dust. He stepped over to it, recalling having to stand on tiptoes to gaze out at the town that spread out below the hill. He wiped the dust away with his hand, smiling to himself at the familiar view.
That was a long time ago.
He turned and strode to the opposite end of the room where, in a small recess that barely reached his knees, were a smattering of orange stones amongst the otherwise bland walls. He felt around them, feeling for a loose one, confident he could find what his eleven year old self had found. Assuming that was what he was here for. As frustration began to set in, spreading as it always did, from his arms and into his body, he pulled a brick free, feeling it crumble in his hands as it came out of the wall. His hands, having been clean, were now thick with dust, brick dust and dirt. Sure enough though, behind the brick, covered in dust, lay a small key.
“What’s that you got there son?”
“Well come on then, we got to get back to your mother”. After that his dad had set off out of the room and up the stairs, giving him a moment to notice the brick that was lying on the ground and the small hole from which the key must have fallen. He had stashed the key and slid the brick into place before rushing upstairs after his father. He grimaced at the memory, turning the key over in his hand as he knelt by the wall. He had never known what the key was for but knew he wanted to find out and that his dad would just get angry if he mentioned it.
He cursed his nostalgia, ridding himself of the sentiment the key was pulling out of his memory and went back up the stairs, the flight on the left, not the flight he had taken down, that his father had used to leave. He took small, hurried steps across the marble floor, glancing only briefly back over his shoulder at the immense mosaic in the center of the basilica’s floor before stepping back out into the sunlight.
He bounced the key softly in his hand, throwing it from his left hand to his right hand, pondering where to try it. He walked over to the rectangular building, following the gravel path around to the stone path that led to its ornate double doors. He tried the key in the keyhole, it would not turn. He took a moment to calm down, he had all but rammed the key into the lock and could not risk snapping it. He followed the gravel back around to the grass and made for the tower. Facing the grassy courtyard was a tall, narrow door - a modern addition largely used for maintenance access he assumed. He tried the key. It fit. He turned his wrist. The key turned, the door opened and, letting out a sigh of relief, glancing nervously over his shoulder, he stepped through it.
Inside he was greeted only by darkness, he looked up at the top of the tower and could see only incredibly narrow slits allowing light in. As the door shut behind him he became overtly conscious of just how alone he was. He adjusted his white shirt, ensuring the velcro had not come undone, he tucked it into his soft, blue cotton trousers and took a tentative step towards the base of the staircase that adorned the right hand wall. He followed it around the walls with his eyes, watching as it snaked from the ground beneath his feet until it all but vanished in the darkness further up nearer the ceiling. Just behind the base of the flight of the stairs was an open trapdoor, a wooden ladder giving away to what looked like endless black. He swallowed nervously and chose to try upwards first.
He took the first few steps with hesitation, his eyes still not quite used to the level of light available to him. As they adjusted and he could see more clearly he walked faster, anxious to see where the steps lead him. As he walked he grew nervous and impatient, feeling rage beginning to swell, he quickened his pace, counting the landings that seemed to serve to mark each story he had ascended. One landing, two, three, four. He walked, faster and faster, his sandals making soft slapping sounds on the stone, then louder, then thunderous claps as he broke into a run. Five, six. He ran, sweat forming on his brow. He grew angrier as one of his sandals came loose. Seven. He stopped, almost ripping the straps off as he yanked the sandals from his feet and hurled them into the black abyss that spread out below him.
Upwards the stairs still stretched as far as he could see. His heart was racing, sweat was trickling down the back of his neck, his warm feet cooled on the bare stone floor. He growled in impatience as he took to running again. Eight. Nine.
He tripped, crying out as his right knee slammed into the stone. He struggled to regain his balance, feeling the exertion of having run up nine stories. His shirt had come undone, the velcro not being able to cope with the stress of his run. He regained his footing and struggled to get back up to speed. Ten. Eleven. Still the stairs stretched above him with no end in sight. Below him was only darkness. He paused, resting his hand against the wall and gasping for breath. His knee throbbed, he rubbed his wrist, running his fingers in circles around his wrist. .
He walked up the next lot of stairs, eyes fixed on the darkness below him. He could feel his legs failing him, tiredness overwhelming his angry mind. His impatience giving way to desperation. His fury birthing only despair. He knelt down, struggling to shuffle a few paces forwards. He looked up from the darkness below him. He placed his hands on the floor before him, holding him up off of the ground. He heaved breath into his lungs, worked to slow his racing mind and, letting go, he fell.
A voice and darkness, falling. A voice. His? Whose?
The bed, which in reality was painfully little more than a cot, stood on a metal frame. Four metal legs, with screws rusted into a metal frame which had thin metal bars running horizontally across. Then there was the mattress, almost paper thin and made without springs for fear one would be torn loose and used as a weapon. The sheet that barely stretched across it had been white once, not that anyone who laid eyes on it could honestly recall. It was now cream with streaks and stains of brown that had become as much a part of the room as the walls and ceiling.
The walls were bare stone underneath. There was a white coat of paint that covered them as well as a smattering of what had once been rubber padding, but was now little more than a peeling mess of white plastic, rubber and fabric. You could see, every now and then, tears and dents and scratches in the remains of the padding, like claw marks. And in the walls too were odd shapes and marks, a chip here, a dent there. Unexplained but wrought with angst, it took almost no sense to pick up on the fear and anger which these walls had witnessed.
The floor was tiled, as cold as the farthest northern ices of the world and harder than any rock. The tiles glistened and shone, giving the impression that they were wet. In reality it was just the way that they reflected the light of the fluorescent strip that clung, desperately, to the water ruined ceiling above. Leaking water pipes on the floor above had long since rendered the once white ceiling a murky brown. Mercifully the leak had been stopped before it could reach the wires that powered the light.
The door, which was the only other feature that the room possessed, was metal. More gun metal grey than it was modern chrome, save for its newly installed handle. Bolts ran along its bottom edge, both sides and the top of its rim. A small slat, with a sliding screen inside, openable only from the outside, punctuated its center. Otherwise it was an impassable, impenetrable grey door, with only darkness and madness lurking behind it.
Roy could feel the sun beating down on his back, could feel the sweat forming underneath his thinning hair and could feel it as it began to trickle down from the center of his head and roll down his neck towards and under his collar. The grass here was short and dry, its tips were sharp and it was almost entirely brown. In patches it had died off completely, replaced with coarse dirt and hoards of low flying, incessantly buzzing insects.
He stopped to retrieve his blue handkerchief from his left inside pocket and mopped his brow, feeling his handkerchief moisten as he wiped the sheen from his face. He cursed himself and his bird. Looking toward the sky all that could be seen was blue, blue from one horizon to another with a harsh yellow glow in its center.
He knew Jay was right, it was almost impossibly rare that she wasn’t, but that didn’t mean his task wasn’t all but impossible. He had no idea where he was going nor did he really know what it was he was looking for. Neither of them had ever actually been there, it was just a place that they had heard of. He didn’t believe that it was a myth, though he certainly wouldn’t have been the first to assume so, he just hadn’t got the faintest idea of where to start.
It was really only regret that had carried him back to the gravel path that went alongside the fields and the swingset. There had been no birds there, no girl. The swings had stood still. He couldn’t even make out any specs of bird blood on the gravel. Not that his eyes were really any good for anything anymore.
He hoped to catch a glimpse of his bird as he walked the fields, maybe see him and coax him back down to the ground by way of a small treat, one of many rattling in his jacket pockets. He knew it was hopeless. He should never have left the swings without him. “But the girl!” He had tried to protest. “No, Roy.” Jay had been right, as always. He needed the bird. So he found himself wandering the fields, he was well away from the swingset now. He had hoped Jay would accept his reasoning, upon his initial return, that he couldn’t the bird and that it was likely hopeless. “Not trying is hopeless!” Wise words, as usual. He had simply nodded, a shallow solemn nod, taken a last look at the girl, resting underneath the tree, eyelids twitching, then set off.
Once there had been a stone wall, about waist high, with a small hedge running along one of its sides. Scattered along every few paces was a small, discarded stone but if it weren’t for that there would have been no indication that a wall had ever been built there. The fields used to be so picturesque, miles and miles of lush green grass, quaint stone walls, corn fields, olive bushes in the warmer times. They had gone through many changes but, now, they were just grass. Featureless, empty and stretching as far as the eye could see in every direction you could face.
If memory served him, which it did more often than not, it wouldn’t be too long until he came across some buildings. A small garage, a shed and a wooden shelter for cats. He had never met the man who had owned them, he had always been warned that the owner was somewhat crazed, almost feral, like the cats he took in. Allegedly he had lived in the garage whilst the shed was used to store tools and equipment for growing food on the nearby vegetable patches.
As the sun began its steady descent he reached the well, the well he had forgotten about, that went alongside the garage, shed and cat shelter. The wood of the shelter looked old and worn, chipped and splintered in too many places to count. No cats lay under it now. Weeds had sprouted in and around it, looking to drown it in the earth. He peered over the edge of the well. The rope had snapped, dropping the bucket into the shallow waters right at its base. The shed door, hanging onto its hinges for dear life, was open. Still and listless in the stagnant air. He walked past, glancing inside but seeing only, as he had expected, more weeds and chipped wood.
The garage, a crudely erected square caked in grey stone chippings and cement, was locked. Its cast iron door, once painted red, now looked like a decaying brown sheet that had been wedged forcibly into position. Roy stood and knocked on the door, twice, hard. A dull thudding sound came out of the metal as he hit it. He stood, held his breath, pressed his ear to the door. Nothing. He sighed, not surprised at how abandoned the place was. Reaching for his handkerchief and mopping his brow again he scanned the gradually darkening skies for his raven, for any bird, any sign of life. Again, unsurprisingly, he saw nothing.
He stood and contemplated his next move. He wouldn’t make it very far from here before nightfall but then the shed didn’t exactly seem like a welcoming prospect in terms of shelter. The other options were cramped under the cat shelter, lying on dead grass and lying in the dirt that was all that remained of the once vibrant vegetable patches. He sighed again and, grimacing, made his way back to the shed, stepping inside, pulling the door closed and making himself as comfortable as he could on the weed ridden floor. Aside from the screeching of those hinges and the banging on the garage door he could not recall the last sound he had heard since reaching the fields.
He was utterly alone.
When he came to, blinking his eyes awake, allowing the harsh fluorescent light to flood his bleary vision, he was cold. His wrists and ankles were cold. His vision was blurry in that early morning way. His throat was sore, dry, like he had swallowed sandpaper. He coughed and blinked hard. Then he remembered. The same routine every morning. The cold wrists and ankles. The harsh fluorescent light. The eerie quiet.
He kicked his legs and thrashed his arms. Anger rose in him, swelling in his shaking arms and spreading to the far reaches of his body. No matter how hard he shook himself he could not break the chains that held him to his cot. They rattled against the metal frame of the bed, the sound an unwelcome reminder of his captivity. He calmed himself, forcing himself to think of other things, forcing himself to lie still. The cold on his wrists, the cold on his ankles. The harsh light.
At first he had kept track of how long he had been in here for. This small room with its white walls, tiled floor and metal door. He was sure at night he could hear the door open but he could never turn in time, he would be stopped and then there would be black. Darkness. Come morning he would go through the same routine he always did. That was assuming it was night or day of course, he had no way of telling the time, not even a natural source of light.
The loneliness was truly oppressive.
He couldn’t think whilst he was lying there. Everytime he focused on something, begin to really think, the thought would go. His mind would reset, forget about what it had been doing and churn endlessly, seeking for something to grasp but letting go of everything. Frantically he would start to sweat, start to gasp for air, his arms would tense up, patience would leave, he would get angry, furious and then, calm. How many days? He could not be sure. He would drift in and out of sleep, then he would have his sleep which seemed to disturb his memory. Then came his morning routine. Day in. Day out. Utter loneliness, punctuated by madness, with periods of calm.
The door was open. Feet had walked down the hallway and someone was at the door. He strained to look round but suddenly felt weak, he could not pull at his chains, could not even turn his head. Could not open his mouth. The feet walked closer, he could see out of the corner of his eye, slim, hairy legs. Dark hair. Then an arm, also slim, also hairy, reaching down toward the feet. The hand came back up, with a sandal in it. Slap. The sandal was dropped to the tiled floor. The same happened to the sandal from the other foot. Then the legs disappeared from view. The soft slapping sound replaced by an ever softer pat. The slight peeling sound of bare foot skin on cold floor tiles. His chains rattled slightly. Then the soft patting sound returned, followed by the screech, the grating and sliding, the click, the soft patting faded.
Then muttered words, muffled voices. “He seems to be coping.”
“Yes, surprisingly well. I think he is ready.”
“Definitely, things are under control, i gave him the sandals.”
“And the chains and the door?”
“Unlocked. The pulse from the chains froze him as you said, he didn’t see my face.”
“Good, he is lucky to have us looking out for him.”
He slid his ankles out of the chains. Slid his wrists free, he rubbed them. He swung his legs around and down onto the floor, stretched his back, stretched his arms, slipped his bare feet into the sandals. He scratched his legs, straightened his blue cotton trousers.
He wasn’t sure if he had ever been lucky. He was glad for the second chance though.
Calmly, he walked to the door.
On the other side he fell, it was dark, totally dark. A voice, his?
“He is lucky.”
“To have us looking out for him.”
“To have a second chance.”
“Your mother! Move, come on, hurry! Get over here!”
The stone walls, the locked door. Rattling, rustling. He could see it all, like he was there, before, after and during. His mistakes? Or his father’s? She had waited in the car, doors open, hot, airless. She had water, a fan. No car keys. He had the car keys in his pocket, his dad always had the car keys in his pocket. That way he could never lose them. Her tongue was hanging out. “Scarlet!” Her hair was damp with sweat, brushed over to one side. Her head was leaning towards the driver's’ seat. “Damn it! Damn it!” She was being shaken. His dad’s eyes were frantic. There were chains on the floor, four of them. Loose. Some of the links were broken. He stopped running. “Damn it! Come on! Move!” He never cursed. His voice was tense but his words were not. The car was hot, airless. His dad was out of control, not knowing what to do, he was doing nothing of use.
She was dead.
He took the hill slowly, it was steep and high. The strange hut of mud and wood at the top promised something he hadn’t had since he had set off: proper shelter. The fields were far behind him, the swings even further and Jay, the oak tree, the girl, were almost a distant memory. His legs ached, his knees and feet were throbbing, his upper back and shoulders felt as though they were close to tearing apart from the rest of him. He had lost his handkerchief somewhere along the way, now the sweat rolled freely down his forehead, running over his face.
As he finally reached the top of the hill he collapsed to his hands and knees. His lungs were burning, his face was stinging from the cold. He couldn’t remember when the weather had turned. As he left the oak tree it had been a hot summer’s day. “You can’t come back without him Roy.” He smiled, recollecting her stern tone. The fields, they had been scorching. Now, cold, wind, occasional rain. He looked up at the grey sky and struggled back to his feet. The hut was clearer now. It was tall, long, largely mud but it was packed around a wooden frame. He could hear squawking, ravens. At that sound his breath returned, he rushed towards the opening nearest him and burst through. He stopped.
All the way along the left hand side of the hut, stretching off into the darkness on the other side, was a cage, from floor to ceiling, with rods running along it from the front to back. On each rod perched ravens. Countless ravens. They all looked identical, feathers flawless, the black almost glowing in the dark of the hut, He tried to count them but he couldn’t, the far end of the hut was too dark, he couldn’t even see where it ended, and the ravens went back right up to the far wall. He heard a cough.
There, curled up in a ball, illuminated by the light from the doorway, knees drawn up to his chest, was a bedraggled looking old man with thick, shoulder length grey hair and a weathered looking face. He coughed again. His eyes were closed tight, his breathing was heavy, steady. He appeared to be asleep. He wore light brown cargo shorts, torn and fraying at the hem. His blue shirt was missing a number of buttons, one sleeve was torn so it was short, the other was missing entirely. On his feet were a pair of tatty loafers, caked in mud. His hands, resting on his knees, were dirty, his nails were brown, his skin looked dry. Roy wasn’t normally that good at guessing ages, usually, to Jay’s delight, guessing lower. This man, he thought, looked to be in his late fifties or early sixties. His arms were thick, his chest was broad but he had a gut on him that could only come through a midlife, or more, spent drinking.
Roy walked over to the cage, getting right up close, resting his fingers in the small gaps. He could not see his bird, his wounded raven, amongst the almost clone like birds that perched there, silently, gazing at him, lifelessly. That cough again. “What are they all doing here?” He muttered it, to himself.
“They take you to your mistakes...” He trailed off. Roy turned, the man was awake, he was getting up, dusting himself off, not that it made much difference. “Like guides, the idea is they give you a second chance, only mine....never mind that.” He walked closer to Roy. Looked him up and down, smiled, almost imperceptibly. “Why are you here?”
“My raven he, he didn’t lead me anywhere.” Roy paused, the man looked visibly taken aback. “I was sent to look for him, he had a fight with another bird and I...had to go.”
“You left your bird!?” The man came closer, Roy stepped back.
“I had to!” Roy was sweating again, nervous. This man did not look friendly. “I came out looking for him and I found this hill-”
“Right, Ravensmound. Well I ended up here and came up looking for shelter, I’ve been searching for my bird for a long time.”
“Did you see him at any point on your journey?”
“Are you sure? Think!” Roy stepped back again, closer to the doorway.
“No, I haven’t seen a soul on my journey, haven’t seen my bird since, since the swings.” The man came closer. Looked Roy right in the eye, his face full of accusation and contempt. He sighed. “What happened at the swings?” Roy told him everything, he couldn’t help himself, the fact that this man seemed hostile and was a total stranger didn’t matter, he told him about the bird fight, the girl, his compulsion to go towards her, her collapse, leaving the bird, going to Jay, leaving Jay with the girl. “An old woman!?” The man virtually spat the words out.
“Yes, about my age.” The man clearly disapproved, he said “You should’ve stayed with her, do you really think she can handle the girl?” Roy didn’t say anything, just looked down at his feet. The man coughed again.
One of the ravens flapped its wings. A soft, batting sound. Roy looked up, the man stepped closer to the cage, Roy stepped closer to the doorway. “Your bird isn’t here is he?” Roy took a step towards the cage, another flap of wings, then several more as other birds joined in. Roy, squinting, said “No.” More wings, more flapping, batting, growing in volume. The man stepped back away from the cage, went back over to the wall, sat back down, drew his knees up, rested his hands on them, crossed over, dirty. “I’m sorry, Roy.”
The cage burst open and Roy, stunned, was drowned in a sea of a thousand angry ravens.
The old man coughed and closed his eyes, waiting.
She lay awake, the light was still on, Claire was still sat next to her, legs crossed, leaning forward, concern etched across her face. Fear, care. She didn’t say anything, just rubbed her eyes. She swung her legs around, putting her feet into the slippers resting on the wood floor. The faux-leather of the sofa was warm now from where she had been sleeping on it. She looked at Claire, opened her mouth. Then that soothing, reassuring voice. “No no, don’t worry about that.” Claire passed her a pen and a pad of paper. “Remember you just need to show me what you saw, you don’t have to talk to anyone, not even me ok?” Her voice was always so soft, so full of care.
Jay sat on the bank, her bare feet dipped into the cool, running water. Her hair and clothes were damp, clinging to her skin after the rain. She shivered. The bird bath was completely full, the slightest touch would cause a spill. The girl was huddled up against the tree, Jay’s cardigan covering her. She had not stirred, not even once, but her eyelids had not stopped twitching. She lay in perfect silence, still unless Jay moved her, but her eyelids were alive.
Roy had been gone for a long time, exactly how long Jay couldn’t be sure but rain had come and gone and come and gone again. His first return had been a mistake. He had barely been gone a day and he returned empty handed. She had promptly sent him back out, tail between his legs. He was a good man but an utter fool, incapable of focusing on the bigger picture, always acting on his gut instinct.
No animals swam in the stream, no birds flew in the sky. The bath was empty. The tree was empty. Jay couldn’t remember the last time she had been alone. She had actually never been alone. The clouds had been gradually dispersing, the thick black mat giving way to grey tufts and then, finally, white cloud, blue sky and sunshine. She shifted herself forward, dropping her feet lower into the water, sinking her toes into the mud at the base of the stream, flattening the balls of her feet into the soft muck, digging her heels into it, feeling the cool of it embrace her feet. She shifted her weight forward again, using her hands to push herself off of the bank until she was standing, feeling herself sink into the mud a little more, feeling it spill over the tops of her feet.
She took a couple of tentative steps then just stood on the spot, lifting her feet, feeling the resistance of the mud. Feeling it wash off in the flow of the water, the mud, having made her feet warm, being replaced by the cool water and then finding its place again as her foot returned. She did this a number of times. Grinning, almost imperceptibly, as she lifted her feet, one at time. She took a few paces forward, turned to look at the girl. The girl had not stirred, had not shifted even in the slightest way. The white clouds were all gone now, the sun was out. Still the sky was empty, an infinite blue in every direction and, still, the water of the stream was empty, save for her feet.
She crouched, stooping down until her knees were up to her chin. She placed her hands in the water, spreading her fingers, feeling the tips of them dig into the dirt, feeling it spread over them, feeling it wash off as she lifted them into the water’s flow, only to sink them back in. DIgging deeper.
The girl woke. Suddenly. Shaking as she did so, discarding the cardigan that had been draped over her. She was damp, her clothes, her hair, the cardigan, the grass she was feeling with her hands. She was damp. It was raining, heavily. The tree, the leaves, they were dripping, they had sheltered her from the worst of it. There was a bird bath, to her left, overflowing. A robin, water dripping from its wings, was flying away from it. There was a stream, water was rising over its bank. She stood, slowly, rising up and stretching out until she was standing, she shook, more and more the further she rose. Her knees ached. Her back ached. Her neck ached. She could see something being carried into the bank. A person. A woman. Floating, face down. As the water rose she came out of the stream, rolled onto the bank, just far enough not to fall back in. She did not move. She was blue faced. She was clean.
After several hours the rain stopped, the skies cleared and the sun returned. The body, the dead, bloated body the girl had looked at with empty eyes, was drying. The stream was receding, water fleeing from the banks and the levels returning to normal. The robin which had flown away earlier returned, landing on a branch of the oak tree, surveying the receding waters of the stream, the drying body and the glistening grass before deftly gliding down to the edge of the bird bath. The cardigan which had covered her was now hanging across a branch, one largely bare of leaves, it was drying rapidly, though she had no use for it. She simply felt compelled to dry it.
Now her dress was dry as well, as was her hair. She took great joy in throwing her head back and gazing at the empty blue sky. She could only vaguely recall the events that had led her to this tree. There had been a swing, she had loved the swing. Then an old man and a fight, a raven, black, bloody, angry, screaming. She had collapsed to the sound of a distant voice. A name. And now here she was at the base of an oak tree, wandering the grass around it and gazing at the sky. She did not know what to do with the body, she felt no feelings towards the woman and lacked the equipment or strength to more or bury it. She was sorry she could not give it the respect it was due but she knew she must move on.
She did not know her way back to the swings and couldn’t think of anywhere else she knew here. She decided to follow the stream, follow the flow of it, past the woman’s body, past the birdbath and the robin, past the oak tree. She turned back for a last look at the tree, seeing the cardigan blowing gently in the soft breeze. Lilac and soft, dry now. She carried on walking. The grass was perfect, cool beneath her feet, soft and easy to walk across. There were no hills, no valleys in sight, just flat grass as far as she could see. Until, on the far horizon, she could make out a vague shape, square, solitary. She quickened her pace slightly, eager to see what she would find. As she drew nearer she could see it was stone, old stone. There were carvings on it, a man, kneeling. She drew closer. It was chipped, an off white colour, a break at one end, smoother at the other, clearly it had belonged to part of a larger structure. She reached out and touched it, feeling the warmth of the sun baked stone beneath her hand. There was nothing else that she could see, just this solitary stone amongst the open field.
She looked closer at the carving, the man was kneeling, his back was arched up towards the sky, his hands clung to the sides of his head. He had small, black eyes, slightly chipped. He had a small hole, one that looked deliberately carved, where his mouth should be. It looked as though he was crying out, screaming at the sky. The stone was about two meters in width, a metre or so high and yet this screaming man was the only thing carved on it. A screaming man, kneeling amongst white stone nothing.
It was unsettling, she moved on from it, walking past it and back out into the grass. Her pace was quick, she walked in hurried, small steps, scuttling along the grass, away from the stone and out into a vast expanse of flat green again. It was warm, very warm. She could feel a sheen of sweat spreading across her face. She was glad to be away from the man on the stone though. Screaming. She couldn’t help but wonder what he had screamed.
Soon enough she could see another shape on the horizon, this one was not solitary, there were two. She slowed her pace slightly but still went towards them, compelled in some way. They were virtually identical, both of them were chipped at both ends, as though they had been torn from a larger structure. Neither depicted the kneeling, screaming man. On the left hand one there was a man, standing, arms by his sides, head raised, only slightly, towards the sun which hung in the top right corner of the carving. He appeared calm, obscured in contemplation. She looked at it and felt immense pity, though she could not say why. The next stone was very different. The sun was present but was on the ground, on the left hand side, cracked in two. The man was larger but the proportions were wrong. His head was larger, showing a twisted smile, a huge chip meant his right eye was missing. He had a torso, a left arm and both legs. Chunks had been taken out of the stone surrounding him. The whole thing looked crude, broken.
It sent a shiver down her spine, reminding her of things she wished to forget. Reminding her of collapsing on the swings, of the old woman’s body, of the screaming man, the distant voice, calling a name. What name? She moved on from the two stones, carrying on with her walk. It did not take long for her to find the source of the stones.
Only a short walk away was an enormous stone archway, leading into what appeared to be the ruins of a temple, old, very old. The stone archway had cylindrical columns with rectangular stones atop them, they were white, free of carvings. Through the archway there were numerous columns, a flight of stairs leading to nothing, a stone cross and, to her right, a temple like structure, stone stairs leading to a floor with a collapsed roof on it, only a small stone cross on the roof having survived the fall without shattering. She knew why they looked familiar, they were Christian. This had been a temple. All of the stones here were bare, some had large gouges, perhaps where carvings may have once been but the others were simply bare and smooth.
She had no belief herself but still felt as though this place were somehow of importance to her. It was grand, in its own decrepit way. It was not hard for her to imagine it as it had been built. The grand archways, elaborate stone carvings, the immense temple, the stairs leading to - to what? The staircase in front of her went to nothing, beyond it was only grass, no trace of ruins.
“Wonderful isn’t it child?” The hairs on her neck stood up. She tensed. “Don’t worry. I mean you no harm. The stairs, they have you confused?” He was soft spoken, gentle. She turned to face him, he was stood in the archway through which she had entered. He wore black robes, had short hair, a kindly, tanned face. He had soft blue eyes. She relaxed, visibly. “They lead to nowhere, quite deliberately. You see those are the stairs of the heretic. There lies nothing. Those stairs” he pointed to the stairs leading to the temple “are the stairs of the righteous. Once that was a great temple, where pious men came to pray.” He walked past her, striding over to the empty stairs, the hem of his black robes was stained with dirt, his sandals were worn. He rubbed his wrists. “Are you here to pray child?”
The girl did not want to pray, she had nothing to pray to, no reason for it. She walked over to the archway, gazing at its bare stone. He was close behind. “There are no carvings here. Bare stone is here only to encourage the idea of no distractions. Someone must come here only for the right reasons.” She watched him closely as he spoke. His eyes avoided the stones which had large chunks missing. He rubbed his wrists. His eyes were alive. “Are you here to pray child?.” She backed away, towards one of the columns. The man was blocking the archway.
He watched her closely but didn’t move, she kept her eyes fixed on him, backing up towards the heretic stairs, going around them, out into the open grass. His gaze turned to the ruined temple, the stairs, the crumbling roof, the cross. She was a good distance away from the temple ruins now, out in the open grass. She still had her eyes fixed on the man in the robes. “Come child!” He yelled from the cross. “Pray with me!” She backed further away.
The girl stopped at the sound of the voice. Familiar? Menacing. The man stopped too. He stood completely still, looking at the girl in the grass. He too recognised the voice.
He fell to his knees, the sky darkened, though only slightly. She took a step closer to him, staying a good way from the ruins but drawing nearer.
“Ahh! Ahh!” He threw his head back. The sky was black. He raised his hands, his whole body tensed, contorting into various shapes of agony. She stood, eyes locked on him. His hands were pressing into his head, he rocked back and forth. “Scaaaaaarrrrllllettt!” The scream left his mouth as though it was the most painful experience of the man’s life. His back arched, further and further. The sky was black. She could not move. She could not look away from him. She could not even blink. His voice was gone now. He held his position, silently.
“Scarlet.” A different voice. Neither the one from the wind nor from the robed man.
“And did your grandparents?”
“No. Well, a little, they...they always had other things they were worried about. I don’t know.”
“And where are they now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are they alive?”
A single thin shaft of light shone in through the narrow slat at the top of the door. He watched the dust dance in it, the specs making their gradual descent to the hard, dry stone floor. There was not a single sound in this place. If he sat still all he could hear was his own soft, steady breathing, the sound of him shifting, of his sandals dragging across the floor, of his shirt or trousers moving as he sat up or of his hands pressing against the wall or floor. It all sounded like a cacophony sent to torment the silence.
Realisation had always amused him. Realisation was usually considered a good thing, leading to moments of clarity, epiphanies, opportunities and the like. But sometimes it could be too late or sometimes the realisation could be a heartbreaking one. As he had fallen he had realised where he was, what he was doing. As he fell, down, down and further, he had known his reason for being. He had smiled. Realisation at the point of no turning back. He needed help but, as always, was alone. He supposed this was how his mother had felt in the car. Suffocating through a lack of air, feeling her throat close in on itself as the heat of the sun streaked down like a lightning bolt, each breath sending her closer to her death.
He leaned forward and took his sandals off. His feet were dusty and dirty, worn and tired. He rested them flat on the bare stone floor, gasping slightly at the sudden cold. He leant back against the wall and rested his head against it, feeling the cold from the stone come up through his feet and flow all across his body. He had tried the door and no matter how hard he hit it he could not force it to move even slightly. For a while he had called out to anybody who might be outside but no one had come. He had heard nothing in reply. He was too short to see through the slat.
So he sat, hunched up against the wall, staring at the dust. He never counted more than twelve or thirteen specks before he could not be sure which ones he had already counted and which ones he hadn’t. Counting the dust was his only form of entertainment. The small room was only a few feet around and, apart from the door, was totally featureless. Fortunately it hadn’t taken long for his eyes to adjust to the darkness.
He was at least grateful for the silence, his mind could rest, his senses could rest. For the first time in a long time he was at peace. He knew he couldn’t sit there forever but, for now, he was glad to indulge himself just this small amount of peacefulness. The last time he had felt this sort of peace had been his second night in his old cell. He had managed, just for that one night, to accept his surroundings, accept his situation, not lay blame, not regret past actions or mistakes. He had been utterly at peace, focused solely on himself.
“Just don’t let her get away.” The voice came from nowhere. It made him snap his head up. “Whatever happens, follow her to the end, don’t do what I did, don’t waste your time on anyone but her.” His father had always been a cold man, a brutal man but in two things he had shown greatness: his aversion to offensive language and his loyalty to his wife. Indeed he had detested his own child, at first just in some small way but, as events unfolded, he detested him more and more. He was a distraction.
She had gotten away, a long time ago. And now he was here. Trapped in a small dark room. All he had done was move from a small light room to a small dark room. Trapped to trapped. He would never find his wife. Never be able to take his father’s advice. If he could get out the room though...now he knew what he was doing, now he knew why he was here.
The corridor appeared to be endless, now matter how many steps she took she could not reach the end. The floor was simple; white, square tiles. The walls were painted white, pristine. The ceiling was the same, marked only by evenly spaced fluorescent lights, illuminating the corridor with clinical precision. Each of her steps echoed loudly, all around her, suffocating her in the sound of her own lack of progress. There were no doors on either side of the wall, there was no door, that she could see, ahead of her and there was no door behind her.
She had found herself here, wandering. Aimless, accompanied by no one, by no thought, no sound, no presence. Still, with no clear path, no grasp on certainty, all she could do, all anyone would do, is blindly push on, clinging to hope like a life raft. So she walked. Her pace swift, her steps small. Slap. Slap. Slap! The echo would have maddened anyone else.
A light flickered. Briefly, just twice, on, off, on, off, in quick succession. She stopped immediately. On the left hand wall was a door. Metal, with a handle a sliding viewing window, at an adult’s eye height, for looking inside. It was slightly ajar. Light came from inside. A flickering light, at odds with the clinical glow of the corridor. She edged closer, stepping lightly, allowing for no echo. She strained her ears, desperate to hear nothing from within the room but, at the same time, hoping to know that she wasn’t totally alone.
She reached out and grabbed the handle, it was ice cold. The door, despite appearances, was light and opened effortlessly and without sound. Inside the room, inside the cell, the cold, clinical precision of the corridor, its pristine walls, floor and ceiling, its omnipresent, fluorescent glow, was replaced by madness. In the center of the room, resting on its side, was a metal bed frame, with chains dangling limply from each of its four small posts. A mattress, torn open, its polyester insides spilling out like guts, lay next to it. The light, it’s fitting hanging several inches from the ceiling, flickered rapidly, in one half second the room was illuminated only by the glow of the corridor lights, in the next it’s full horror was visible. The floor was stained, brown, yellow, red, bodily fluids, dried, piled, spilled all over. The wall, largely just bare stone, showed some signs of white tiling, of rubber pads, torn at, scratched at, gouged at. More blood, more excrement.
On the ceiling, in jagged, manic writing, in blood, carved out, stained, a solitary word.
The girl fled the room, slamming the door behind her, her heart racing. She heard footsteps. The light above her was no longer flickering. She breathed in deep, forcing herself to be calm, to face who was coming. From the far, unreachable end of the hall, emerged two figures. One male, one female, both bald, both with haggard faces. They drew nearer and nearer, both silent. They had sunken, hollow eyes. They were skeletal. Both wore white robes, one with brown sandals, one, the man, bare footed. They hobbled, slowly, lurching along as though at any moment their very bone structure may simply collapse.
“A second chance.” The woman spoke in a raspy voice, her words grating. “And where is he?” She turned, cracking her neck around to look at the man, the man with no shoes. He raised a withered arm, outstretched a ragged finger, pointing at the girl. “Not here. Not with her. No raven.”
“Scarlet!?” A man’s voice. Not the skeletal man’s. The woman stopped, staring at the ceiling. “No, no raven. But who had it?” She turned to face back the way the two of them had come, the man continued walking towards the girl, his steps becoming slower and slower, more laboured, more considered. “He must have it. They never fail.”
“Scarlet!?” A man’s voice, ragged at the edge, angry. Closer than before. The woman started to walk back the way she had come. “He is here” she laughed a half hearted, hacking laugh, more an expression of pain than amusement “we looked out for him and he has come back.”
“Scarlet!” Much closer, too close, loud, angry, ragged, wrought with pain, with hate. Malice. The skeletal man reached out and touched her. She had not moved. She couldn’t, she was paralysed. By fear? His ragged finger touched her face. “Are you?”
“Yes, Helena’s. Yes, are you? No, you definitely are. Helena’s. A coffin, fire. Drinking, singing”. Footsteps, not the woman’s. Louder, louder, heavy, fast. The man turned on his heel, deftly, with remarkable agility. “But no raven for you, no raven for Helena. A second chance, unlocked chains, open doors, no raven?”
“He is here.” The woman was on her knees in the center of the corridor, hands clutching her bald, wrinkled head. Elbows looking as though they would burst through her paper-like skin. “A second chance!” Her voice was a scream, a chant-like, agonising scream. “We looked out for him, set him free for a second chance!”
“Scarlet.” The skeletal man, facing the woman. “He is here.” The man turned to face the girl, a sick parody of a grin etched into his face. At the far, unreachable end of the hallway was a silhouette. Arms, legs. Body. Head. Hate. “Scarlet!” His powerful, booming voice reverberated off of the tiled floor. “You little, disgusting, wasteful little runt!” The grin, the parody, vanished, the man, on his heel, spun once more. The woman’s scream stopped at once, she rose to her knees. The silhouette moved forward. Lights flickered. The girl stepped backwards, towards the door, then turned and ran for the opposite end of the corridor. The man and woman walked towards one another, took each other’s hands. They spoke in unison, a hollow, raspy unison. “No raven for our son.”
The girl was running at full speed, there was no door but she ran like there was, faster and faster towards the far end of the corridor, away from the man and woman, away from the silhouette. She ran and ran, deafened by the echo of her footfall, by the echo of a girl’s name, the roars of a deranged man. She reached the wall. The end of the corridor. No door, no window. A white tiled floor, walls and ceiling painted white. A fluorescent light casting its clinical glow. She pressed her back to the wall, watching the silhouette charge towards her. It smashed into the man and woman, who flew to the sides of the corridor, letting out thin rasps as they landed. Still he came, obscured but menacing. Panting. Rushing. Surging towards her like a ceaseless, swirling tide.
He reached out his arm, coming closer to her, closer. She pressed every fiber of her being into the wall, closed her eyes as tightly as she could. She did not scream. “Scarlet!”
The silhouette, the fluorescent lights, the corridor, the skeletal man, the skeletal woman, became darkness.
He sat with his back against the cylindrical metal bin. It’s black bag pulled up in an effort to create more space but still overflowing with takeaway coffee cups, sandwich packets, half eaten apples. All around him, spread out like a rug, were empty bottles of wine, beer, vodka, cider. Some stood, as sentinels, preventing people from coming near without making a noise. Others lay on the ground, rolling back and forth slightly in the breeze, catching the glow of the nearby streetlight and reflecting it outwards in shades of green, blue and brown.
His head had rolled forward, his chin was resting on his chest. His thick, brown beard was stiff with grease, beer and food. His auburn hair looked as though it had not been washed for weeks. Flies buzzed around him, settling occasionally on a dirty fingernail, sweaty palm or snot ridden nose. He snored heavily, a guttural drone emitting from him as his chest rose and fell.
He had lost his wife, he had lost the girl, he had lost his job, he had lost his house. He had no family, no friends. He lived in the street, in darkness he slept, in daylight he drank. He was almost out of money. His stomach throbbed with hunger. His mind raced, fuelled by anger, regret, hate and misery. Sleep was his only peace.
He needed a second chance.
Helena was the very definition of beauty. A simple, elegant white dress with no train and no veil. Her makeup, simple, minimal, nude and natural. Her raven black hair, done in loose ringlets, dropping down across her tanned, bare shoulders. Her lips, perfect, drew up in a smile, revealing flawless teeth. Her eyes, the icy blue that had always enticed Jason, lit up in the joy of her greatest day. Her mother and father, Jason’s friends, her aunts, uncles, cousins, her friends, they all beamed at her.
The tiny chapel on the outskirts of their small town was packed with well wishers. The short, simple ceremony had brought tears to the eyes of most of those who were present. Jason, in his sharp, tailored suit, with his perfectly coiffed auburn hair, deep green eyes and wry smile, was held on a pedestal in the eyes of every woman present. But Helena was the one who had him, for her, for them, for the rest of her life.
Of course he was not perfect, of course he had a dark side, had demons, had nightmares. All people do, all people will. She had met him over a decade ago, helped him, loved him. They understood each other on the most basic and yet deepest of all levels. No one doubted that they were perfect for each other. Of course, no one knew his struggles, in the public eye he was brimming with confidence, kindness, humour. Of course, on his dark days only the confidence remained.
Helena had seen all he had to offer, good, bad and worse. She had steered them both through blue skies and black depths, handling everything with dignity. She knew anger, she felt pain, experienced fear and he knew she did, she made sure of it but, at the end of it all, the great days outweighed the good ones, his demons, her kindness, made for each other, had led to the greatest day of her life. He was her handsome, charming, loving, flawed knight, perfectly suited to her elegant, selfless, adoring nature.
The sun shone warmly through the stained glass windows, Jesus, Mary, both smiling, glowed, radiant in their generosity and their joy. Helena smiled at each window in turn, letting the light bounce off of her eyes as the cameras on dozens of phones flashed. The stone floor on which they stood echoed with the steps of all those that loved her, that loved Jason, that had been there from the start or had only recently joined them.
Helena’s mother, always proud, always doting, she cried when Helena graduated, cried when she secured her first teaching job, cried when she met Jason, cried when they got engaged, cried on her way to the church, cried during the ceremony. Her father, smiling apologetically on behalf of his wife, looked handsome, full of youth despite his age. They beamed at her.
Emily waited in the archway, just past the door that led into the cellar. Her pale blue dress, simple, plain, was tight, hugging her curves, accentuating them. Her thick blonde hair, straight, lush, vibrant. It had caught his eye the moment she had entered the small chapel. Her piercing brown eyes, they taunted him. He had waited for his moment, waited for the flash of the cameras to move away from him and had slipped away. Giving into urges, again. His crotch throbbing, palms sweating, heart racing.
He ran to her, ran into her embrace, her lips, her hands, all over him, his, all over her. Passion, lust, anger, madness, a swirling mix of chemicals, emotions, feelings long locked away, all of it pouring out. He loved Helena, always had but, he was a man of more, always driven, by anger, regret, hate, he needed more, always. Some say this pushed people away he said the opposite. Her dress, he tore at it, clawed at it, she moaned, he pressed into her, harder, forcing her into the wall. They clung to one another, writhing together. Neither heard the door open, the gasp, the footsteps rush back up the stairs, the footsteps of many rushing down, gasps, cries. It wasn’t until her voice came out. “Jason!?” In that one word she had told him what he feared. That was it.
Years of mistakes, years of good times, years of regret, of love. Ruined. More had cost him, his urges, his drives, his madness. All of the good and bad had led to a perfect day, a day which he had chosen to ruin. He let go of Emily, who disappeared, naked, further into the cellar, into the shadows. Parents, uncles, cousins, aunts, friends. They filled the room, glaring at him, staring in disbelief, in rage, in disgust. Helena rushed up the stairs, out of the chapel. His eyes found the floor.
“Just don’t let her get away.” The voice came from nowhere. It made him snap his head up. “Whatever happens, follow her to the end, don’t do what I did, don’t waste your time on anyone but her.” A small girl walked into the room, fixed cold eyes on him, turned and left, taking a seat in the chapel. Waiting.
He saw Helena only once or twice after that.
He wished more than anything that he could be given a second chance.
The chain link fence, its metal coated in green wrap, ran all around the old building, with no visible holes. He knew it was too high for him to climb, even if his feet were small enough to find foot holes in the fence. The building looked like it hadn’t been touched in years. The brick was chipped and crumbling, there were no doors and the few hinges he could see were rusted. What little glass remained in the windows was brown and dull. He glanced over his shoulder again. No one was coming down the dirt track and the trees and bushes that surrounded the clearing were still. No wind. No rain. No people. He did another lap, this time checking the base of the fence for an area to crawl under. Just as he was going to give in, he found a small hole. He pulled the fence up, crouched down and slid, over dry dirt and dry leaves, until he was inside.
He paused again, listening. He glanced over his shoulder. Then headed to the door.
The floor had once been largely tiled, a faded green colour, clinical almost. Now it was largely just a jumbled mess of broken tiles, wooden chips and dirt. A room to his left was a toilet, the bowl was full of brown water, the cistern was cracked. On the window sill above it was a bird’s nest, empty. He carried on along the hallway, walking out into a square room, a metal staircase descending down into darkness in front of him, on either side were lockers with orange doors, hanging open, empty. On the wall to his right was a small wooden shelf, with a blue clipboard and a log on it. M. Collins had checked the place at 08:15, J. Barrows at 13:45. The day had been the 5th October. No year was mentioned, but no one had been for a long time. The roof was largely missing, the sunlight that broke through the trees lit the room.
He took a handful of steps towards the top of the staircase, gingerly reaching out to grab the railing. Then a noise like thunder erupted from the darkness beneath him. He froze, unable to move, unable even to breathe or panic. The sound gave way to a deep drone, electrical, a throbbing sound. After several seconds, it ended. He breathed again, feeling his entire body relax. He let go of the railing and slowly walked down
His dad’s voice echoed in his ears. “Don’t you do anything stupid!” Mum wouldn’t like it. “You wouldn’t upset her, don’t upset me.” His hand had reached down, trying to look relaxed. His language, always polite. Voice strained.
But this wasn’t stupid. Jason knew there was nothing down there, he just wanted to explore, wanted to see the old generators. A red light flickered on one of the generators. It was completely silent. The floor was bare concrete, he squinted to see it more clearly, leaves were scattered across it, sticks, loose stones, empty beer cans. Clearly he wasn’t the only one with an urge to see what was down here. His eyes were adjusting to the dark. He crossed his arms across his chest to ward off the cold and made his way away from the stairs and deeper into the room.
The iron gate, with chipping black paint and golden painted balls atop it, hung limply on its hinges. The brickwork that held it up either side was crumbling, the wooden fence on its right was rotted, the hedge on the left was dead, sticks and dirt instead of the lush green leaves she remembered. She placed a hand against and pushed, it was stiff, requiring her to push against it hard, it creaked open, slowly. She took a few tentative steps onto the gravel driveway, recalling cars parked there, flowers growing in the bed along its right side, a tree at the corner that turned off to go in front of the house.
There were no flowers, no cars. The tree clung on, defiantly. She walked down the drive. In front of her, at the far end, was the garage, it's brown door now showing bare, rusting metal. To her right was what remained of the front garden, overgrown grass and flower beds filled with weeds and dying bushes.
She rounded the corner and stopped. In front of her was the house. Up the steps of the porch she could see the front door, the same brown door with the gold handle she remembered. The house loomed over her, it’s four front facing windows looking down. She breathed heavily, rapidly, sweat forming on her brow, sticking her red curls to her face. Her chest tightened, heat spread up her back. She forced herself to take a step forwards, another and another. She went up the tiled steps and onto the porch. There used to be flower pots either side of the door, planters on the wall, now there was nothing The gold of the door handle looked tarnished, the eyehole had been smashed and the wood was scratched badly.
She pushed it, gingerly and, to her surprise, it opened. The blue carpet, now faded and threaded, brought memories back in a rush. Mum, stoic and quiet, Dad, saying kind words ridden with anger, with menace. The magnolia walls, dirty now, reminded her of the nauseating smell of paint, a fresh coat applied every summer by Dad. If she complained about the smell she would be shouted at and sent to her room. He was careful with his words but he was always terrifying.
She went further in, up the stairs. Her old room was on the right at the top of the stairs. But she turned left to go to the room at the end of the hall. Empty now of course but she used to go there to play. With the young boy, she couldn’t remember his name. He would come up from the downstairs bedroom when his dad was angry, he was scared, and since his mum had died things with his dad were much worse. He spoke about it alot.
She turned to leave the room and froze.
On the wall, above the door frame.
SCARLET. I AM FREE.
The door closed shut behind her.
“Did going back help?”
She was silent. She did not look at Claire, did not respond, did not move. Her eyes were fixed on the floor.
She sighed. “Jason.”
Jason stood looking at the empty swing set. The grey sky above, the damp bark below. The chains were rusted, the wood of the seat was worn and chipped.
Scarlet hadn’t been on these swings for a long time.