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A Brief Haunting

Posted: Thu Feb 13, 2014 12:29 pm
by berry
“Do you love him?”
A cold thick silence fills the car. I stare at the road as it disappears beneath the windscreen and I wait, and wait.

A fragment of a moment and one unanswered question. That’s all I have left in my head as I watch dirt land on her coffin. It’s just ceremonial, throwing the dirt. There’s a small digger waiting nearby to do the real work. I guess it’s small, but here it looms huge and incongruous. A man is sitting at the controls, another is leaning on the wheel. They’re smoking while they chat, their behaviour as inappropriate and callous as the digger itself. A graveyard is no place for machinery. There should be real effort, aching muscles and sweat from a creature that understands what it is doing.

I feel a hand on my shoulder, the sensation jerks my eyes open and swivels my head towards the sound of my name. My mother’s face looks down at me, all painful concern.
“I’m alright.”
I say automatically. She looks unconvinced but pastes a smile on top of the doubt and hands me a cup of tea.
“I know I’ve said it before Alex but you have to stop blaming yourself, accidents happen.”
I sip the tea and bob my head. I can feel her stare, she’s willing me to agree, to say it wasn’t my fault. If I could say it convincingly I would but I can’t, so I just examine my tea and say nothing. She sighs deeply as my sisters’ voice floats in on the heavy silence in the room. There are goodbyes and sympathetic hugs at the front door from the last of the mourners, their voices aren’t clear but I hear my sister thank them for their offers of help and support.
“Like a fridge full of casseroles is going to help.”
“Sorry darling what did you say?
My mother has replied and it’s only then I realize that I’ve said the thought out loud. I shrug and continue to examine my tea. My mind reaches for another fragment, another bit of a moment, something that might tell me what happened. So far all I know is that one day my world became some weird foreign film playing on a screen, with just me watching as the scenes change and merge. A surrealist movie with metaphors I can’t grasp.

We’re having one of those evenings, where we all try to pretend. They’ve arranged it together but all the careful planning is presented to me as a ‘hey why don’t you come over and hang out’ kind of deal. There aren’t any excuses I can offer, they’re my friends and they’re determined.

It’s obvious that one of us is missing, we try to fill the space she leaves with drinking and extra loud laughing at jokes that aren’t that funny.
“Hey Alex whatcha doing?”
Pippa’s wandered into the kitchen where I’ve gone to smoke. She weaves her way across the kitchen, her spiked high heels a rather dangerous fashion accessory with the amount of alcohol she’s had this evening. Her drink spills a little every time she lists to the right.
“You got another one of those hidden away.”
She nods at my cigarette.
I pull out my pack and she takes one. The coordination of trying to light it and hold her drink steady is too much for her. The glass falls from her hand and breaks into little pieces on the floor and suddenly there’s new information in my head, an instant download.

Splintering glass and screeching hot metal
Screaming and blood.

It’s a flash of memory, terrible and fast. I sway as though it has weight, listing left and right like my drunken friend but, it doesn’t end, there’s more to come.

There’s blood and there’s glass. Her broken body lies across the bonnet of the car. A broken headlight flickers like a slow strobe in the dark. A hideous reveal every couple of seconds.
“Alex, Alex!”
The memory flicks off and reality flicks in. Pippa is standing in front of me, one hand on my arm gently shaking me.
“I…I remember…something.”
I look up and realise I have an audience of pained and pitying expressions. The others have come to see what all the noise is about. Suddenly I want to be alone, there’s more memory, hanging about like shadows behind foggy glass, I can’t clear the fog with them staring at me.
“I need to be alone.”
The expressions morph from pity to worry.
“Please, I think I could remember if…”
I don’t bother to finish, I don’t need to. They nod, give me that thin lipped almost smile that I’ve seen so much of lately and leave me to it. I sit on the kitchen floor staring at little bits of me reflected in the shards of glass.

I can feel it coming…

“Do you love him?”
A cold thick silence fills the car. I stare at the road as it disappears beneath the windscreen and I wait, and wait.
The answer comes quietly but firmly. I stare at her for what seems like hours, she doesn’t look back; her face is a silhouette against the passing street lights. The clock ticks out the seconds, it flips over, 9.42. It’s taken less than a minute for my world to fall apart. We’re going fast, too fast, heading towards a tree but I don't panic. I don't do anything, don't feel anything. Her last word takes up all the space in my head; the tree takes up all the space in the windscreen. I freeze, one quiet frozen moment…then everything is noise; splintering glass, splintering bone, screeching hot metal, somebody screaming…
My eyes are wide open but I don’t see the kitchen floor or Pippa’s broken glass, all I can see is that last scene, the one before everything goes black. It’s like some gruesome installation by an artist who wants to shock the public. Her body lies face down across the bonnet, blood rolls in little streams and slowly drips into the pool gathering on the ground. Broken headlights’ sputter light on the scene all ghostly and surreal.

With the memory comes something else, a hitch hiker, of sorts.

Dawn comes, changing the light on the ceiling that I’ve been staring at for hours.
I’ll shower, pick out clothes, I’ll get dressed and eat breakfast. It doesn’t matter what I wear, it doesn’t matter what I eat. Just got to fill the minutes. Fill the minutes and the hours don’t seem so long. Fill the hours and the days don’t seem so long. This is what I have to do. Got to keep pretending to live; do what the living should be doing. Every day is the same, “you should go out and get some fresh air”, they say. So, out I go, it’s easier to oblige than to argue.

It doesn’t matter where I go. My body walks with no destination, no purpose and I just float like a child’s balloon, empty and unaware. All I have in my head wherever I go, whatever I look at, is broken headlights flicking on and off her broken body, blood rolling slowly across the bonnet of the car pooling on the ground. This vision is now my constant companion, a poisonous relationship I cannot escape from. Then 9.42 comes.

I call my boss and tell him I can’t come back to work yet. ‘Stay home; take as much time as you need and of course anything I can do…’ He says, they all say that ‘anything I can do.’ They don’t mean it though, they want to mean it but they don’t. I can tell he wants to get me off the phone as quickly as possible, if he stays on the phone too long I might start talking about it. So he acts like he’s doing me a favor, being magnanimous, but he doesn’t really care that there’s no comfort at home, there’s no comfort outside. He doesn’t know but then, none of them know what happens. What happens every night.

The nights and days could be interchangeable but for 9.42pm when she comes.

First she appears in the armchair by the window, she’s facing away from me, and I can only see her silhouette, it seems so natural, at first.
She whispers, it’s a slow hiss, like steam escaping. Then she turns, the movement so impossibly slow it seems to last forever. The dark silhouette becomes a chin, a cheek, her beautiful brow, her long soft hair. As she turns with an unbearable scraping of bone against bone, her head lolls at an unnatural angle, now she faces me. Most of her face is missing, a shard of glass protrudes from where her left eye used to be, there’s nothing above it but a mesh of blood and brain. Her face moves clumsily to make a sly smile, as her lip moves flesh from her cheek flaps open. It’s a repulsive bloody grimace of bare teeth and meat.
She whispers again, but this time it’s a wet gurgle as clotted blood erupts from her mouth. I clamp my hands over my eyes and any further words she might say are lost in my screams.

“Should we call him back now?”
My sister’s voice again, it’s only a few feet behind me but it seems a hundred miles away. They’re tired of this ritual but I don’t care, I’m compelled by something I can’t quite grasp. In front of me is the tree, it stretches obliviously into the sky with nothing but a few scratches to show for its starring role in my tragedy. Glancing behind me I see my sister’s worried frown mirrored in my mother’s face. She runs her scarf through her fingers; my sister jingles her car keys. Turning away from their fidgeting, I move forward a little and touch the tree. I feel nothing but bark, just like last Sunday, just like the Sunday before that. I scowl at it, then punch it leaving behind bits of my skin and blood but it remains unmoved by my little outburst. Whatever it is I need eludes me once again, maybe next time. As I trudge slowly towards the car my mother and sister quickly change their expressions to tense smiles and we drive away.

“You’re not sleeping are you honey?”
Her face is all motherly concern. Only she still has time for my grief, she brings the tea and pats my shoulder. The rest of them have moved on. I’m not forgotten, I’m a sad anecdote that they can share when it suits them; they can take a sip of grief but don’t have to drink the whole bottle. They move on leaving me stuck in my confusion. They don’t know who sits in my living room at 9.42 every night.

This morning feels different though, as I sit at the kitchen table with some sort of food stuff on a plate in front of me and my hand curled around a mug of something hot, I know that I have to go again. It must be today and it must be alone.

My sister hands over her car keys reluctantly, she tries to argue but I’m determined. There is no logical argument, no appeal, no emotional inducement that could change my mind, not today. She tries to smile but can’t manage to hide her frown of disapproval as I turn away from her and walk to the car. She shouts something but my lack of interest simply leaves it hanging in the air.

It’s 9.00pm as I get into the car and start the engine. Speeding away with my hands gripping the wheel as tightly as possible to stop them trembling. My heart beats fast and hard and for the first time in months I actually feel alive.

As I turn into that road, today dissolves… I’m back in the car, with her.
“I've made a decision, a decision about us. We're just not working Alex, not anymore, so I think it’s best if I go, you know, move out. I’ve got somewhere to stay. I’m leaving tomorrow.”
The words spill out as though she is afraid they might not come out at all if she doesn’t say them quickly.
“I know.”
I reply keeping my voice level and passionless. Her mouth drops open, her face is all astonishment. I revel in her surprise like it’s some sort of victory. A small, pathetic victory, maybe.
“How did…when…”
“I met him.”
Her cheeks redden and she gives me a confused frown but after a second or two the frown changes and her eyes narrow with suspicion. It looks like she’s going to say something, her mouth opens and closes a few times, but no sound escapes and then as though she simply cannot find a thought worth expressing she simply says,
“I guess it doesn’t matter now.”
“Oh it matters.”
I spit the words out, she jumps as though the words have actually landed on her lap. I can feel the anger coming, creeping up my body filling me with self –righteous power.
“It certainly matters. No we're not working anymore, of course we're not, it can't work with me while it's working with him. Can it? You were going to let me believe it was all me weren’t you? Like I'd done something wrong, or maybe it was going to be the ‘we’ve just drifted apart’ *beep*, but that’s not the truth is it? Is it? The truth is you…and him.”
She pouts a little, her face shows genuine regret but it only stokes my anger and makes me hate her just a little bit more.
“Do you love him?”
Silence fills the car, cold thick silence. I stare at the road as it disappears underneath the windscreen and I wait, and wait.
I look back at the road, the bend is coming. I take one last look at her and smile as I put my foot on the accelerator. Her eyes are like saucers now and she grips the dashboard, she shouts something or maybe it’s a scream but nothing can reach me now. I am serene as I steer towards the tree, one last adjustment to ensure the point of impact and one last movement, just a few inches to reach her seatbelt. Click.

I’m back, and as that day dissolves, my smile widens. I’m surprised it fits on my face but somehow it spreads even further. How could I have forgotten? I am a murderer.

My sudden laugh startles some nearby birds from their perches and it echoes through the trees as I drive away. I don’t think she’ll be back tonight and even if she is, let her come. I’ll console myself with the insurance cheque that arrived this morning.

Re: A Brief Haunting

Posted: Thu Feb 13, 2014 7:46 pm
by Bmat
I remembered this story from before. It is enjoyable for sure. The paragraph breaks are better here. :)

Re: A Brief Haunting

Posted: Thu Feb 13, 2014 10:54 pm
by Asp Zelazny
I also remember your earlier version of this story, which was gripping then. This has significantly improved -- the tension and the slow reveals are played perfectly. Certainly publication worthy!

Just a few tiny grammatical thingies (I can't help it):

"deeply as my sisters’ voice floats" ... think it should be "my sister's" (there seems to be only one sister referred to)
"You got another one of those hidden away.” ... probably should end in a question mark (though admittedly the flat, nonquestion form would work, but if the character speaking was less sympathetic)
"Broken headlights’ sputter light on the scene" ... either "Broken headlights' sputter lights the scene" ie "the sputter" is doing the lighting, OR "Broken headlights sputter, lighting the scene"
“You’re not sleeping are you honey?” ... "You're not sleeping, are you, honey?"

Re: A Brief Haunting

Posted: Fri Feb 14, 2014 2:16 am
by berry
Thanks, I have been trying to improve my writing in general but it is hard to know whether I'm actually improving or just doing things differently so I've gone back to some old stories to see if I can make them work better. Your comments are very encouraging, thank-you.