It made him feel uncomfortable from the moment it entered the house. The moment he saw it peeking out of its carrier bag as Layla rooted around for the receipt. It even made its way into his dreams. Dreams about a pretty little eleven year old girl lying face up in the water, her hair tangled in grasping tendrils of dark green weeds, the hideous contraption floating independently round her body.
And here it was splayed out like a gigantic dead spider in a contortion of spindly suspender legs and crumpled lace. He approached the bed as if it were an open coffin, a warm dribble beading, then darting down between his shoulder blades as he slid a forefinger under one of its metal adjusters. The silky smooth panel of its gusset shone back at him. He stepped away, rubbing his hands and glancing towards the orange strip of illumination let in from the hall by the slim gap between the door and the wall. Outside, opaque high cloud slipped past unveiling the fat pale face of the moon. Its light washed in through the window, framing the subject in a bone-white grid.
He snatched up a stuffed pink elephant perched on top of a pillow, pinning its stubby body between his knees and yanking at the erect trunk until it finally split from the head spewing a large clump of white synthetic sponge out onto the deep blue carpet. Tossing it aside so that it bounced into a darkened corner, in its place he carefully positioned a framed photograph of a handsome young dog in a red leather collar.
Clear yellow sun poured through pert emerald leaves not yet wearied to greyish-green by a summer of heat. Newly awoken brown and cream-flecked butterflies rode a frivolous breeze, whilst from out across the fields there came a plaintive cry, a thunderous chugging and finally the screech of metal as another journey on the heritage steam railway wheezed to an end. Eric sank into a thick cushion of moss clinging to a toppled tree trunk with his hands between his thighs and his shoulders hunched up around his ears. He surveyed a trail of pads and claws imprinted deep into the soft sandy earth before him, recalling how fat their dog Connie had gotten when the walks stopped. How her bulging, rheumy eyes burrowed into him sideways from her all-day bed in the old tapestry armchair. The chair where she flopped for what seemed like years, building up a thick layer of fat beneath her tatty golden coat. The chair where she ended up as nothing more than an inanimate block with a head stuck on top. Waiting and waiting and waiting at home while Layla took her love to town. Sinking deep into the fragrant mulch of last year’s foliage, Eric pushed on towards the centre of the wood. Under and over great arches of tangled briars, snagging his jeans and grating a knuckle on the dry scaly skin of a snaking ivy.
Past the gaping wounds left by fallen boughs which screamed like arms wrenched out at the socket and onwards to where the huge oaks kneel with their short, disfigured trunks and twisted branches thrown up begging for forgiveness. To where the mobbing circle of old trees shuffle back to open out a panel of sky framed by a jagged portal of angry dead wood. A panel of sky reflected below by an amoeba-shaped body of turbid water sunk down into the ground.
“Is Mrs Cole right...did they really drown witches there?” It had been a hazy summer’s day over ten years before and the old bag had stopped them yet again to indulge her passion for inflicting morbid folklore.
“Yes, but the whole point is,” continued Layla, crunching down a sizeable lump of shiny red apple, “if they didn’t die from drowning, it was proven they were witches and they had to be burned at the stake.”
Sat on his haunches in the damp grass, Eric peered half across the viscous membrane of the algae-green pool and half up into the pale blue sky of his youth, which, that fateful day, had suddenly rolled and darkened with the asphyxiating closeness of a storm he couldn’t escape. A sensation which clung to his psyche like the horrific sight of blood-stained knickers badly hidden in the wash basket. Like the starving winter blackbird taken from behind by a cat whilst desperately foraging for enough food to see it through another freezing night. The caterpillar that hatches only to be eaten alive from the inside by the larvae of a wasp. The flash of scarlet that washed over Layla’s cheeks and teased a reflexive smile from her lips when she sauntered past a group of older boys, pleated mini-skirt swaying gently from side to side. Her coming home late the following night and stumbling her way up the stairs; a draft of cheap cider and cigarette smoke wafting past him like the gaseous evacuation from a corpse.
“Did you get as far as the pond?” Layla turned her attention back to the networking site. A tabby cat with middle-aged spread weaved stiffly in and out of the chair legs beneath her.“Sorry I couldn’t come – I’ll try and get there some other time.”
Eric sat on the edge of the sofa and stared at her back, dabbing his eyes with the sleeve of his jumper. Layla’s buttocks, once small and muscular, spread immodestly out over the edges of the cushion, which peeped from under her in little triangles like hands and feet below a dropped piano. Where a lithe, concave torso used to lean over handlebars in countless miles of fluid peddling, now a wad of semi-toned flesh popped out over the waistband of her hot-pants. Replacing the thick ponytail of mahogany waves which bounced along in sequence as she easily outran him along the lane to the ruined church, there was only an easily manageable bottle-blonde bob.
Eventually Layla huffed and shrugged her shoulders as if trying to release the tension caused by her suspicion of his unremitting gaze. She turned round and looked straight at the podgy gargoyle crouched behind her as if passing judgement from some Medieval roof.
“Eric, we need to talk...”
Eric squinted as he recalled them running home saturated one Saturday evening after spending all day building a leafy den with a roof that wasn’t quite waterproof –
“What’s all this weird stuff with the elephant about...?
Tree climbing contests in the park -
“And going into my room full stop...please tell me you didn’t touch my things, my clothes!”
Making a camp fire and almost igniting half the heath land as crackling flames lapped up bracken and bone-dry grass at alarming speed -
“Eric, you’re giving me the creeps grinning like that - I really do think you need to get some help...”
Later that evening the hallway was filled with a hot fog as Layla burst out of the bathroom and scurried through the lounge with her robe loosely tied to fetch another bottle of wine. Eric knew the screws on the bolt were loose, so it only took three attempts to dislodge them by ramming his shoulder into the door. The handle bounced a triangular hole in the plaster just above the cream and pink tiles, whilst in the bath tub Layla squirmed and screeched, smooth strips of hair streaking down her ruddy face. But despite the blast of obscenities and the round glass missile of a scent bottle making contact with his left cheekbone, Eric didn’t back away. He simply leaned in and grabbed a matted clump of hair from the back of her head, pushing her face down under the water.
The psychologist looked up over her half-moon glasses, her pen scratching only a word or two now compared to the reams of intense scribbling when her patient had first arrived.
“Eric...Layla’s dead. You have to try and accept that.”
With a broad smile he nodded enthusiastic agreement, but her hazel eyes blanked over and she skidded the pad across the desk to her left, exhaling deeply and wringing her hands in her lap.
She watched his gaze wander to the sunny day outside and a peaceful, assured expression sweep across his face. He’d gone off to find his beloved sister again. In an ancient wood with a pond in the middle and an excitable Labrador puppy bouncing round her feet.
Having worked as a freelance journalist and photographer I have been writing short fiction for a couple of years now as a way of developing my skills beyond the often dry technical style of my articles. I have had stories published or forthcoming in Spinetinglers and Dark Edifice magazines.