3. This is How it Ends
4. Chemical Dependency
5. Dark Black Red
Pavement. One step. Two.
Everything’s swaying. Shouldn’t have had that last beer. Best take the shortcut home, along the canal.
Then the ground’s flying up to meet me. The tarmac takes the skin off my hands. It’s the third time I’ve stumbled since I left the pub a few streets back.
Never mind that. My senses are dulled; I can hardly feel the pain.
The towpath runs too close to the water’s edge for my liking. I’m so unsteady that one false step will send me flying into it.
It’s a cloudy night, with blue mist rising off the canal, blurring my vision. Or maybe that’s just the drink. There’s something creepy about it, all the same. What’s the word? Ethereal, that’s the one.
There’s an obstacle ahead. Go around it, my subconscious reminds me. Vaguely, I wonder what it is. Most likely an abandoned shopping trolley, or an antiquated fridge.
But no, it’s bigger. The only light comes from the haze of some distant streetlights. I need to see. My phone screen will be a torch.
Light glints off pristine paintwork. It hits a reflective surface and briefly blinds me. Windows, I see, when my vision returns. And lower down, wheels.
A car, my mind triumphantly comprehends.
And not just any car. A genuine ’66 Mustang. It makes me smile; my grandfather had one exactly like it. Bought it as soon as he could afford it, and kept it till the day he died. That car was his pride and joy, and it was always immaculate. He had the paint job redone every decade or so.
He’d pull up outside our house, smiling and wearing that hat he always wore, ready to whisk us to the coast or the park. I can hear his laugh in my head now, booming and exultant. It’s enough to sober me up a little.
Who would abandon this beautifully maintained car next to a canal?
Flashing my phone towards the number plate, in search of a clue, I freeze. The white letters jump out at me, especially the last three. PTK…the same ones on the plate of my grandfather’s car. He used to call it Patrick. “Morning, Patrick”, he’d say, as he unlocked the door and patted the bonnet.
It can’t be true – and yet there’s the old checked blanket he threw over the back seat, half-slipping off as it always was.
I fumble for the handle on the driver’s side. The door’s unlocked. In a trance, I slide inside. Incredible. Everything’s just as I remember it, right down to the old-fashioned handbrake that sticks out of the dashboard like an umbrella handle.
Stupid drink-induced thoughts begin to flood my mind. Look, the keys are in the ignition. I could drive it home.
But that’s ridiculous. There won’t be any petrol in it. Or is it diesel? I can’t remember.
What’s that persistent clinking sound? Sounds like the keys – but they’re not moving. I try to grab hold of them, but my fingers keep missing. That last beer was definitely a bad idea; the one before it, too. I just can’t seem to get a hold on them.
The clinking gets louder.
“Shut up,” I say, starting to laugh, because I’m drunk.
Unnerved, I stop laughing. I reach for the keys again, but my fingers just slip away.
You in my car again, son?
I jump, but the voice is in my head. A memory, no more. He often caught me playing at being an adult, tugging on the wheel but moving nowhere.
I told you not to go in there on your own.
It’s making me nervous now. I look around, but no-one’s there. Uncomfortably, I remember that things with Grandad ended on a bad note. We argued about something – I can’t remember what.
Get out, before I drag you out by your ear.
The words always used to sound teasing, but my mind twists them, makes them threatening.
The Mustang jolts and begins to roll backwards. Too late, I remember that the ground slopes here. The umbrella-handle handbrake was on, but it isn’t anymore.
GET OUT, BEFORE I HAVE TO DRAG YOU OUT.
I don’t stop to ask questions. I throw open the door and roll out, starting to run without looking back.
“What did you do with Patrick?” I ask my brother Lee the next morning.
“You know, Grandad’s car. What happened to it after he died?”
Lee looks at me strangely. “We scrapped it. Why?”
Icy fingers trace my spine. “No reason,” I say weakly.
When I return to the canal I find nothing, except a faded number plate washed up on the bank. The last three letters are PTK.
The mornings are the worst part.
The sun rises and the ground goes from icy cold to skin-scorching. The usual cup of lukewarm coffee-like liquid is thrust through the bars to force me into caffeine-induced wakefulness. It tastes bitter. The water here is pumped from the mountains. Along the way, the pipes crack, and dust and worse things blow in to pollute it. By the time it arrives, it can barely be called water any more.
Still, I drink it, because it’s all I’m going to get.
What a bloody mess all of this is. I don’t know where I am, or even who I am. There’s just the desert, my cell, the wall in front with a chunk torn out by a grenade. It gives me a bite-shaped view of the sand and the craggy mountains on the horizon. At night, I can see the stars.
In the daytime, though, the sun does its best to burn me to a crisp.
They lean against the wall in front, in their khaki, cradling rifles, almond eyes in deep brown faces. Only one of them at a time. I’m not threatening enough to warrant any more than that. They shout to each other in harsh voices, using words that I can’t understand.
Sometimes there’s a gunshot in the distance, and it tips me over the edge. There’ll be a ringing in my ears, the sound of landmines exploding, fires, screaming. Silhouettes around me crumple like rag dolls.
Then I feel something cold on my brow, someone pushing me down, and I realise that the screaming is coming from my own mouth. A kindly face murmurs soothing words. The medic.
That’s what I call him. I can’t remember his real name. Most likely I wouldn’t be able to say it if I could. He knows about healing, though, and he speaks a little English, heavily accented. He tips water down my throat, which is always as arid as the desert, and calms me until the terrible scenes fade away. Sometimes I hear a woman’s voice in my head, too, telling me that everything is going to be OK. I don’t know who she is.
Often, the medic says something about hallucinations, and PTSD. I know the letters mean something, but I’m not sure what. So much that I can’t remember. Once he said I was a prisoner of war. That much is true, at least. The war holds me prisoner within my own mind.
My muscles have wasted away. They don’t feed me much. Often as not, I bring it back up anyway, abdomen jerking wretchedly.
Wretched. A good word. I can’t think of anything more fitting to my present state.
Perhaps today is the day it will change, I think every morning, but it never is. Today is going to be bad, I can tell.
The rumbling of a tank in the distance.
They descend upon me all at once, the images, but this time they have a new dimension. I hear shouts from the direction of the base, and at the same time I feel it, the vibrations in the ground and the strange heat on my face. This time, when the tongues of flame start to spread their way across the plain, the black smoke seems to choke me.
It’s not real. That’s the advice the medic always gives me, to keep reminding myself that it’s not really happening. So I try it, as they run around trying to fight an enemy they can’t see. How many times have I wished for this? Yet what would I do if they were gone?
Flying shrapnel grazes the bars of my cell, but it’s not real. The bite mark explodes outwards, the ceiling falls in, and I curl up and wait. Wait for the medic to press a cool hand to my forehead and bring me back to the present.
But he doesn’t, and it just carries on, until a burning shred of something carves its way into my thigh. Finally, it realise what the extra dimension is. It’s reality.
It is real, I think, dropping to the floor and rolling into the wall just as it begins to tumble, bricks falling like lethal rain.
There’s a vaguely familiar thudding in the sky.
The last thing I see is the medic, running towards me, as the ground bucks like it wants to throw him off. He’s shouting something, but I’ll never get to know what it is.
I should be dead. That’s first thing that occurs to me when I find my eyes open again, my thigh throbbing. Perhaps I want to be. It was all a hallucination after all. I wait for the cup of bitter coffee, for the ground to gradually heat up beneath my body. None of it happens, and it’s then that I notice the white ceiling above me. White. Painted. Not concrete pockmarked by bullets. There are tubes going into me. I try to think of the word. A hospital. Is this another illusion?
There’s a woman sleeping in a chair by the bed. Her face stirs something in my mind. I try to attach a name to that face, but I can’t.
I know her voice, though. When she opens her eyes and says, “You’re awake,” I remember the voice in my head that used to tell me it would all be OK.
“Where am I?” It takes me a moment to find the words.
“Back in the UK. Don’t you remember? A helicopter got you out of there. Oh God, it’s been so long…”
“Who are you?”
She stares at me, tears filling her eyes. “I’m Hannah. You don’t remember me?”
“Only your voice. How long?”
“Three years,” she whispers. “I thought you were dead. Everyone did. And now they send you back to me broken.”
I’m broken, but they do their best to fix me.
Days and memories pile up like autumn leaves, and they send me to people, until the explosions in my head begin to come less frequently. She’s always there, Hannah, to talk me out of it, when I drop to the floor to avoid projectiles only I can see, or start screaming at invisible horrors. I know I need to get better, so I try to forget and to remember at the same time.
Eventually, they trust me enough to put a child in my arms, a three-year-old girl. They tell me she’s my daughter. Only then does it all begin to flood back, and slowly I remember who I am, who the people around me are.
I don’t forget the medic, either. By the time I’m well enough to trace him, he’s already dead. He managed to get me out of my cell, so that I was spotted by the British Chinook. Then he got caught up in the crossfire. He died of a gunshot wound. It turns out he was the only reason that they bothered to keep me alive in the first place – he refused to let them kill me.
Now I have my life back, of sorts, and I won’t lose sight of how I got here. I will live, because I want to rather than because I have to, and one morning, maybe in a month or maybe in a year, I will wake up and know that I can do this.
This Is How It Ends
(An almost-ghost story)
So the whole sorry affair started one morning, perhaps a month ago. I can still take myself back to that moment, even now.
He walks into the kitchen, and I’m thinking, He has that face on again. I know what that expression means. It’s his holier-than-thou look. It means that I’m not being a good little Christian wife, that my behaviour is killing him – metaphorically, of course.
He starts on about trying to ‘rejuvenate’ our relationship. ‘Salvage’ is what he means. It’s no good. The pieces are spread too far apart for us to gather them up again. He says, “Our marriage is falling apart.”
I say, “Let it fall apart in peace.”
It’s no good. I find myself in a car – our car – headed for the coast. “It will be an adventure,” he says. “It will be romantic.”
“Too many unpleasant things are called romantic,” I say.
I submit unwillingly. Sick of being persuaded into things, I rebel inside. On the outside, I still act as though I don’t know. I pretend not to know that he must salvage this car wreck of a relationship for the sake of his reputation rather than for our sake. All those times he pushed me into going to church, telling me it was ‘for my soul’, when really it was for his sake I lost my Sunday mornings to something I wasn’t sure I believed in.
I won’t speak to him. I can’t, without insulting everything he stands for. I just barely have enough respect left for that.
We always did love the sea, when we were young. Before all of this started to go wrong, and what he calls his ‘faith’ got in the way of our lives. Now, as we climb the path and stand on the blustery clifftop, I can almost see what would drive someone to plunge into the waves, on some dark night perhaps. The swirling water has an allure of sorts. The crash of the breakers is somehow hypnotic.
“Look at the beauty of God’s creation,” he says, in that tone of false wonder.
I pause. “Why can’t we stop doing this? It’s no good. Let me go.”
“You are getting what you deserve,” he says.
We look at each other, and his patience is in shreds. It strikes me that we’re both thinking the same thing. The cliff edge is maybe two feet away, and it seems to beckon us. Look at me, it says. I’m a potential solution to your problems.
Neither of us does it, of course. At this point, I don’t believe him capable. We get back in the car. The sudden noise of the engine, tearing apart the silence, is like a punch in the face.
We’re parked on the scrubby grass. When he starts to reverse, I assume he’s turning around, until he doesn’t stop.
I feel the cliff edge crumbling beneath the tyres, rocks tumbling down to the beach below. Now I start screaming at him, demanding to know what he’s doing. His hands are tight on the wheel. Very deliberately, he hammers down the accelerator.
The shriek of tearing metal is like nothing I’ve ever heard. The car lands on its side – my side – and my world breaks apart like the shattered glass of the windscreen.
He didn’t mean to survive. Somehow, his mind is warped in a way which makes driving himself and his wife to an almost certain death preferable to the so-called shame of a divorce. When they pulled him out, he was half-conscious, still muttering that they must let him die. He was right, for perhaps the first time in my memory. It should have been me they pulled out of the heap of twisted metal.
Despite that, half of me got out. It’s the half that feels no pain except resentment, and is bound to nothing and nobody but itself. I remember him telling me that everything he did was for the good of my immortal soul. Perhaps he will change his mind when I find him.
He will be home soon. Invisibly, I have watched them try to fix his mind as well as his body, in the same way he tried to fix our marriage – and with as much success. He deceived them, but not me. “It was an accident,” he says, and I marvel at how he has managed to break two of the rules set out in the Bible in an attempt to keep to one of them.
When they bring him back, he is still shaking with the force of what he’s done. Time means nothing to me anymore, but I would say it’s been a month. That month has added ten years to his features. They think it’s kinder for him to be at home, but they don’t see him quail before the photographs on the walls. I hardly recognise my own face. It isn’t mine anymore, I suppose.
There’s no such thing as ghosts, we say to our children when they have nightmares. Perhaps that’s true. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I do believe in me. I am going to make him believe too. At the end of it, perhaps he will wish more fervently that his little ‘adventure’ had gone to plan.
Except that when it comes to it, I can’t do it. I don’t know why I decide not to be vengeful – perhaps so that I have the satisfaction of being better than him, with all his pretences of religion. He lies on our bed, looking petrified in both senses of the word. He feels that I am here, I think.
I let the space where my fingers should be brush against the skin of his face, almost like a caress, and then I am gone. We are both nothing now.
This is how it ends, our ‘adventure’. Perhaps it will be a warning.
The hiker stared fixedly at the rowing boat, drifting towards the centre of the lake. It was apparently empty, the oars missing and the hull scraping softly against a rocky island. It hung a little lower in the water than it should have.
He frowned, trying to decide whether or not it was his problem. The boat swung around softly, as the wind began to pick up. Silently, it coasted towards the northern bank, bumping into the shore.
The hiker jogged around the edge of the lake until he reached the boat. Grasping the splintered planks, he tugged it up onto the embankment.
The pale faces stared accusingly up at him - a woman and a child. The woman’s eyes were open and unblinking, the little girl curled up as if sleeping. There were no outward signs of injury on either.
Hands shaking, the hiker pulled out his mobile phone and began to dial.
Policemen and paramedics swarmed over the brow of the hill, equipment swung over their shoulders. Police tape now surrounded the boat, though it was unlikely there would be any prying onlookers out here in the middle of nowhere.
A paramedic’s shout of surprise echoed around the valley.
“The girl is alive,” he called out.
It was true, though the hiker who reported the crime had insisted both victims were dead.
“Shock and dehydration,” diagnosed the paramedic, inspecting the child’s face and feeling her pulse. “And I’d say the woman was poisoned.”
Both the body and the little girl had now been removed in an ambulance, while a homicide detective combed the area and the forensics team checked the boat for fingerprints and any other evidence.
Tyre tracks were found nearby and photographed. They were traced to the nearest country road, where the car appeared to have turned right. Later that day the post-mortem was carried out, and traces of an industrial-strength chemical were found in the body. It had been dissolved in a water bottle, meaning one of the people who planned the trip was probably responsible for the crime. However, someone had driven away from the scene, raising the question of why the killer had gone along on the trip. Surely it would have made more sense to avoid the crime-scene-to-be altogether, and let the poison do its work?
“That’s about all we have,” admitted Lisa Rogers, the young detective who had been assigned the case. She was slim, dark-haired, and looked nothing like a detective, which had worked to her advantage on many occasions. “There were three sets of fingerprints in the boat – the woman’s, the child’s, and those of an unknown person. From the tyre tracks, we know that the car was a large four-wheel drive. We’re working on the assumption that the driver was the unknown person.”
“And are we assuming he or she was the killer, too?” inquired the chief, a burly, balding man falling victim to middle-aged spread. He still made her a little nervous, even though she had successfully won him over after her success on a triple homicide case the year before.
“It’s too early to say, sir.”
“Do we have the victim’s name?”
“We believe she was Charlotte Johnson, who was reported missing yesterday, if you remember. That would make the girl her daughter, Isabelle. We’re trying to contact a relative to identify the woman. The girl is in no fit state to talk to us, as yet. Let’s just be thankful she didn’t drink any of that water.”
“When will she be ready to talk?”
“In a few days, maybe. There are cuts and bruises all over her body, which suggests domestic abuse. We’ll have to tread carefully – she’s deeply traumatised. Who knows what she witnessed?”
This was no ordinary homicide case, that much was certain. Something about it just didn’t feel right, Detective Rogers reflected, as she redialled Charlotte Johnson’s home number. She waited as it rang, again and again, before playing Ms Johnson’s answerphone message. Her posthumous voice sent a shiver down the detective’s spine.
She had been trying, without success, to contact the deceased’s partner, Robert Winston. Ms Johnson’s distraught parents could not explain his disappearance, nor could the couple’s friends. The family car was parked outside the house, but the tyres matched those of the one which left the lake after the murder. Mr Winston was urgently wanted for questioning.
It was two days later when he was finally brought to the station in the back of a police car. He claimed he had only just returned from Borneo, where he had been volunteering. Communication was limited in the middle of the rainforest, as he was quick to point out. He looked shaken and slightly nauseated.
“He is a suspect,” the young detective admitted to the chief, “especially as he doesn’t have an alibi for the time of the murder, or anyone to corroborate his claim that he was in Borneo. The unknown prints on the boat were his, but it belonged to the family, so that doesn’t prove anything.”
“And do we have any other suspects?”
“We need to check out the hiker who made the phone call, although that’s not a priority.”
“Make it a priority. This is a murder investigation. We have to be thorough.”
“Yes, sir. Oh, one more thing. We’ve seized Ms Johnson’s phone and laptop, and we’ve found some messages we need to look into.”
“Really? What kind of messages?”
“Messages of a…an intimate nature, sent between Ms Johnson and an unknown number. It could be that her partner had changed his number, but…”
“Look into it.”
The phone company had been very helpful when it came to tracing the number. It belonged to a Peter Moore, who had, perhaps rather too coincidentally, disappeared on a business trip on the day of the murder. He was proving to be as difficult to get hold of as Mr Wilson had.
He also worked in the chemical industry. His company actually handled the substance found in Ms Johnson’s body.
“He’s starting to look like a suspicious character,” Detective Rogers said. She was in the process of updating her boss; there had been a few new developments that day.
They had seized Mr Wilson’s passport and found that he had not, in fact, been in Borneo. When confronted with this evidence, he had broken down, but he was still vehemently denying the charges against him. Inexplicably, he always acted as though he was terrified whenever the matter was brought up, although the detective was unable to determine what he was afraid of. As for the hiker, he had been contacted and appeared to be exactly what he claimed to be – a walker who had stumbled across the bodies.
“What about the girl?” the chief asked, running a hand through his stubbly haircut. He didn’t know what to make of the case any more than she did.
“Isabelle is recovering well – she should be ready for questioning tomorrow,” announced Detective Rogers. “I’ll go down to the hospital in the morning.”
She was determined to carry out the questioning herself. She was surely the least intimidating person on the force.
“Isabelle,” Detective Rogers said, smiling warmly at the little girl in the hospital bed. She was about ten years old, blonde-haired and pallid. “Is it okay if I call you that?”
“My mum used to call me Izzy,” the girl mumbled, clutching at her bedspread as though she was drowning.
“Izzy, then,” Detective Rogers amended, doing her best to be reassuring. “I need to ask you a few questions. You don’t have to answer any of them, and if you feel uncomfortable, just tell me. Okay?”
“Okay,” Izzy said, staring down at the fabric of her duvet.
“Firstly, about your mother’s boyfriend, Mr Wilson,” Detective Rogers said. “He lived with you, correct? What can you tell me about him?”
Izzy seemed surprised by the question. “I – I didn’t get on with him very well. I mean, sometimes he was nice, but at other times, he – he used to -”
She broke off, tears welling up at the corner of her eyes.
“Did he ever hit you?” Detective Rogers asked gently.
Inadvertently, the girl’s hands went to her arms, where most of the bruises were. “It…it wasn’t just him,” she said tremulously.
“No? Who else was it? Someone else your mother was in a relationship with?”
“No,” Izzy mumbled. “No, it was…it was her.”
“Who is her? Your mother?”
Izzy hesitated a moment, then nodded. Detective Rogers wrote the new information down in her pad.
“What about Peter Moore?” she asked. “Did you ever meet anyone of that name?”
An unexpected smile lit up the girl’s face. “Yeah. Pete was my mum’s friend. He was my friend, too. I liked him.”
“Would he have had any motive for wanting to hurt your mother?”
“Not really,” Izzy shrugged. “Except…”
“Except he was a bit angry that she wouldn’t break up with Robert,” Izzy said. “He used to tell me about it. Mum kept telling Pete she’d do it soon, but she never did. She was probably scared Robert would start hitting her.”
The detective wrote that down, too.
“Okay, Izzy,” Detective Rogers said. “I’m sorry to bring this up, but there’s one question I have to ask you. Which one of them was with you at the lake? Was it Robert or Pete?” Inadvertently, she leaned forward in anticipation of the girl’s response.
Izzy didn’t answer right away. She touched her bruised arms again, looking up at the detective.
“Robert,” she finally whispered.
Detective Rogers scribbled furiously. “So do you think he waited for the chemical to take effect, and then drove away once he knew it had worked?”
“No,” Izzy said, trembling slightly. “I mean, he drove away, but…can I tell you something? Something about Pete?”
“Of course,” Detective Rogers said, smiling encouragingly.
“Well, I actually saw him that morning. He came ‘specially to see me. He said he had a present for me, something I’d been wanting for ages.”
Detective Rogers nodded expectantly. “And? What happened next?”
“About halfway through the conversation, he stopped being nice. He started saying some nasty things, about…”
“About your mother?”
The girl nodded.
“And when exactly did this change happen?”
Izzy smiled slightly. There was a strange look in her eyes.
“Just after he gave me the poison,” she answered, sliding the concealed scalpel out of her sleeve and lunging forward.
Dark Black Red
When we walk in it’s like passing out, falling into darkness and then falling some more.
Danni isn’t happy. She wants me to be suitably impressed. She slams the door, sealing us in.
“Let go of my sleeve,” she says.
“But it’s dark. I can’t see.”
“There are lights.”
But they’re red, I don’t say. She would ask me why it mattered.
“When can we go?”
“We’re not going for ages, stupid. I’ve got a full roll to do. I need to do them all by tomorrow.”
“What do you mean, why? Because I do, OK? Pass the scissors.”
“How long will this take?”
“Probably an hour or so, and then I’ll have to wait for them to dry.”
My head starts to spin at the thought of a whole hour spent in this strange room with the hellish red lights that turn my sister into a demon. I look for the door, but it’s disappeared into the blackness.
Danni adjusts the equipment, like she’s preparing a torture chamber for its next victim. She dips the strange shiny paper into swirling potions, removing them with another torture instrument.
She sees me watching.
“What?” she says. “They’re just tongs.”
Think of the damage you could do with those.
“Why the hell did I bring you along?” she grumbles. “Stop staring at me, will you?”
“It was your idea.”
“You agreed to it.”
“I didn’t have a choice.”
“Sure you didn’t.”
Danni can say what she likes – she did make me come with her. She wanted to show off to someone, and I was the only one who wasn’t busy. I said I had homework, but she laughed and said nine-year-olds didn’t know what homework was. She thinks she’s above me because she’s three years older.
My palms start to sweat, quickly followed by the rest of me. When I reach up to touch my forehead, my hand comes away slick with moisture.
The walls are moving inwards.
“This room is getting smaller,” I say.
Danni rolls her eyes. “I always said you had an overactive imagination.”
But it’s true.
“Let me out!”
“I can’t open the door, the light would ruin everything. Calm down, will you?”
She pins the dripping paper on strings that run from wall to wall. The red light colours the droplets. They make gruesome puddles on the floor.
Gruesome. I learnt that word yesterday. Mrs Collins said it wasn’t a nice word. I don’t care, though, because it’s a good one. It sounds like what it means. And those puddles are definitely gruesome.
Danni is going back and forth between the torture equipment and the potions. Back and forth, back and forth, like a pendulum.
“Quick,” she says, “this is the last one. Come and see how I do it.”
I stand on tiptoes and peek into the first potion. Danni lowers the blank paper into the liquid, pushing it under the surface.
Drowning it, like this room tried to drown me.
“Look,” she says.
Something is appearing on the paper. A face begins to form, grinning evilly. The monster is watching me.
I scream and stagger backwards.
“For God’s sake, Brett, what is it?”
“There’s a monster on the paper, can’t you see?”
“That’s Louise! My friend!”
I look back and the monster is just a girl, smiling unthreateningly at the camera. I try to speak, but no sound comes out.
“What’s got into you?” Danni demands. “Just a few minutes more, that’s all. Then we can go. OK?”
I try to steady my breathing. A few minutes more - that’s not long. I close my eyes so I can’t see the darkness. It helps a little.
“Brett,” Danni says.
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