Night was pressing its face against the kitchen window watching Val as she washed the dishes in the sink. It had been a long time since they had eaten dinner but there had been no time for cleaning up afterwards. Val sighed and placed another plate in the drying rack. The house was silent, a strange sensation after all the noise before.
It was the first day back at school tomorrow the new calendar on the notice board declared. The children hadn’t been happy about the early night and the prospect of the coming morning. Val’s ears still echoed at the screams and shouts of the tantrums, the slamming of doors and throwing of books.
Val looked up at the ceiling, her hands wrinkling in the hot water and soap bubbles popping. There was no movement from upstairs now. Before it had sounded like a stampede of elephants. Val wondered if her husband had fallen asleep with their youngest again. Five month old Jay and three year old Zak shared a room and were the hardest of the children to settle to sleep.
Washing their plastic plates and cutlery, reminded Val how she hadn’t want anymore children after Aaron. Three was enough but then Zak had been a bonus blessing and Jay had followed soon after as if God had caught up answering all her past prayers for a baby at once.
Rosie had come first, now aged eleven and taking after Val in everything. Lottie, eight and Aaron, six were glued to each other and always up to mischief. They seemed to have become the twins that Val had miscarried during the second IVF treatment. Though, she’d had Lottie and Aaron naturally.
Unplugging the sink, Val dried her hands and flicked the kettle on. She thought about going upstairs to check on her husband. Sleeping sitting up in the corner wouldn’t do his aching neck any good. Tired and reveling in the quiet, Val made herself an instant gingerbread latte and went to in the living room. It was messy with children’s things and she had to fix the sofa before sitting down.
She wrapped her hands around the hot mug and lent back, shutting her eyes. There was a blessing in this snatched moment of peace and self-care. Before she dozed off, she opened her eyes and put the mug down. Val could have turned on the tv and found something to watch or she could have go on her phone but the stillness was something to be saved and not broken.
Sipping the latte, Val rolled in the quietness and watched the night moving by the un-curtained window.
Thank you for your Christmas card, it was nice to hear all your updates. I shall have to write fully soon but for now here’s a short note. We’re all fine, not much news, only the wedding has been moved to later on this year and the puppy is feeling lots better after the chocolate mishap on Christmas day!
There’s been some heavy snow up here and more is due. Bet it’s not much warmer on the coast but I’d rather walk on sand instead of mud.
Did you hear about Fred? Falling off the roof like that at his age! He’s home and his broken legs are healing well.
Let me know if you hear anymore about Norma. I never got a card off her.
The champagne corks pop. Laughter echoes as white froth pours from large green bottles. A sea of cups lifts to capture the raining champagne, the golden liquid sparkles. The bubbles bead along the thin steamed glasses, bursting as they reach the top.
This is my first page of a new year and I feel almost guilty for spoiling the clean white pages but here we are. Beginnings are always hard. Your head is full of things and you have to decide what to write first. Sometimes it’s the opposite; blank mind. What do you write? Where did all those ideas you had before go?
I think it helps to just stain the page with ink, to get rid of the daunting blankness. Doddle on the edges, write your name, the date, quotes, whatever. Make the page unblank. Then, you can start writing what you need to, knowing the page is already marked so it’s okay to do the task you set out on the lines or the plain space.
I don’t what I’m going to record in this diary yet. I guess important dates of appointments and birthdays. Things I need to remember and things I’d like too. There’s not enough room for a whole account of my day, just notes of what happened. If I want to do so.
The first day of a new year seems sort of empty. People are recovering from all night parties, maybe they might go buy a bargain or go for a long walk. It’s always the first day for diets and other get fit things. I didn’t do any of the above. It was just me and the old dog, Betty, the mixed terrier, watching movies. I guess if the ancient woman I had cared for in the last few months of her life had been still alive Betty would have been asleep on her lap last night instead of mine.
Betty is at the end of my bed as I write this. She’s curled up and snoring. I didn’t really want her on the bed but she was a lap dog, not spoilt, just well cared for because she give a dying woman comfort and made her feel not alone. Betty has been making me feel like that over this second week together. I’ve had cats before, they fitted in better with my job but it’s nice to have dog who stays by your side.
Tomorrow is just going to be another day. Nothing special or filled with much. I have new books to read and a cross stitch to carry on with. The weather is looking mild which suits Betty better for walking. Perhaps, I will make a cake and phone a friend. Do some more self-care and not think for awhile.
Lucille carried her head high as she walked down the railway tracks. Her suitcases were heavy but she was use to carry them around. At each city, she was faced with the same thing, ‘you want to be a star? No chance!’ and the doors were shut in her face.
She walked on, not minding where she ended up next. Every city was the same after awhile and she could always find a place to stay and a little work to do. Lucille had many talents built over the years. Also, she had power over men that most woman envied and it didn’t involve the promise of her body.
Lucille smiled to herself as she totted on the wooden planks and stones of the tracks. She never lost hope and carried her dreams in her pockets. She kept trying and didn’t let anything knock her down for long. There was always tomorrow and one day, her fortune would change, Lucille knew it. Then she would show everyone what they had missed out on.
Oliver peered nervously out of the window and saw a sea wave crashing over the wall and on to the road outside his house.
The white foam tops of the waves clouded the air and sea spray mingled with the falling rain. The sea roared with an untameable lust that deafened everything nearby, only challenged by booming thunder.
The weather forecast had said it was going to bad on the coasts and flooding were likely. Of course, Oliver had prepared with sandbags at the doors and low windows. Most of his furniture was stacked upstairs and his car was parked up at Raven’s Edge cliff carpark.
Oliver thought that he should have stayed with his car because it was safer but he would have been fretting too much about his house being flooded.
Listening to the sea bashing about as the wild wind stirred the waves up and rain poured down, Oliver realised it was too late to do anything else. He would just have to hope that the sea didn’t rise anymore and his house didn’t flood.
Dawn was in the sky but it was still dark enough that we could hide if needed. Though I don’t think anybody cared. We pulled up in the empty motel parking lot and the headlights flashed across the keep out signs and the flapping yellow police tape.
The boss turned off the engine and the lights. We sat listening and watching for a few minutes. The power was still on here; lights inside and out were on. There was glass, furniture and other debris scattered around. There were tags of graffiti on the walls telling us that the vandals had moved in.
We got out of the car and slowly walked around. If there was anybody here waiting to give us trouble they’d been in for a shock because there was four us and we knew how to gang fight. Also, at least two of us carried guns and we all had knives.
Glass and rubble crushed under our boots. Birds and crickets were making a racket but nothing else came from the motel. A creepy feeling lingered, almost like we were walking into an empty grave. I felt my hair and skin rise, something was off about this place.
There were many in ways and after checking a few, we went into one of the rooms and began stripping it. Copper, other metals, anything that could easily be scraped with no questions asked. We moved through, doing as much as possible in the little time we had.
‘Not been abandoned long,’ Reggie mutter.
‘Few months at most,’ Ben hissed back.
‘Something went down here though,’ I added.
‘Double murder,’ the boss cut in.
We all looked at him, hands stilled on our work.
‘Owners hacked to death by one of their employees.’
‘Ah, I saw it in the news,’ Ben answered, ‘he buried them in the woods out back there then claimed the Devil told him to do it.’
‘Devils,’ Reggie repeated and shook his head.
Boss snorted, ‘let’s get on.’
When my turn for look out came – because always one of us has to keep an eye and ear out- we were close to the owners’ offices and apartment. I kicked the leg of a chair out of the way and looked at the still tied up police tape.
Beyond, the office looked a mess, someone had done a grand job of turning it over. I stepped closer, just wanting to confirm that no one was hiding in there. I had a small flashlight, that helped me not trip over anything.
I scanned the beam across a window then came to a stop. There was a bloody hand print on the glass.
‘Look at this,’ I called in a low voice.
Ben was closet and came over, ‘what?’ he whispered.
I nodded to the window and my light where we both then looked.
The bloody hand print was gone!
‘But…there was a…’
I shone the flashlight around, looking hard to see if maybe I had just moved off the print but no, the glass was clean.
‘Is there anything worth taking in there?’ Ben asked.
‘I’ll check it,’ I uttered, still trying to process what had happened.
Walking carefully forward, I tore the police tape down and went to the door. It opened easily and I stepped into the office. Papers and stuff were scattered around like a hurricane had blown in. The reminds of police things lay mixed in; a white glove, finger print dust, a vial.
Stepping on things, I looked around and spotted nothing worth taking. A door was blocked by a desk but a second door in the opposite wall was wide opening and leading through to the check in area.
Not enough light was entering there so someone could be hiding. Going on, I had the instinct to clutch the handle of my knife in my jacket pocket. The feel of the black, hard plastic helped reassure me.
Something crunched loudly beneath me and I looked to see it was a computer keyboard. Shaking my head, I nudged it away and carried on.
A groaning sound stopped me. I felt my breath hitch. Maybe, it was just the wind?
Under the counter something flashed and I went back to it. There was a plain gold ring on the floor. Bending down, I went to pick it up but a hand whipped out of the darkness and grip me!
I cried out and tried to break free but the fingers dug into me and I felt sharp nails leaving marking in my skin. With an unbelievable strength the hand pulled me down, causing me to lose my balance and I almost fell onto the counter top.
Dropping the flashlight and seizing my knife, I slashed out with the blade. I felt my hand released. I tumbled back, falling and landing heavily. Breathing deeply, everything screamed at me to get away and I tried to get up but then I saw the hand laying by itself.
It was the size of a man’s. The fingers were curled up and all bruised looking, the bloody, jagged nails were clutching at the carpet. The skin was yellow and brown, clearly dead. A small pool of dark blood was leaking around it.
There was no way I could have cut through bone.
Shaking, I fumbled for the flashlight and aimed the beam beyond the dismembered hand. There under the counter curled two figures. They were the size of small adults and dressed in stained clothing, one was a man and the other a woman.
They were kneeling and clutching each other as if desperate to hold on. The woman’s long black hair was covering her face which was pressed to the man’s shoulder. There were deep gashes all over her arms and legs. Her white dress was ripped up, blood and dirt stained. She had no shoes and her feet were cut opening as if she had been walking on glass.
The man had his face shadowed by the woman’s and his left arm was also hidden by her body. He was wearing a white shirt and black pants, both blood splattered and covered in dirt. Also, his bare feet were muddy and he was missing a hand.
One of them moaned then something like a word came out.
I felt the panic fade and my senses coming back. They were clearly homeless and drug users. They must have been so high or low that the man hadn’t felt his hand getting cut off. They also smelt. The stench coming off them wasn’t just sweat but something else, like rot and putrid waste.
My hand pressed over my mouth and nose but it did little block out the smell now I was aware of it.
‘What are you doing here?’ I demanded.
Again with the mumbled word and the man moved his face. His skin was dark with something smeared across and his jaw looked to be hanging loose. The woman turned slightly and went as if to move her stringy hair but most of it stayed on her face.
‘What?’ I spoke, feeling my angry growing.
‘Help,’ the man’s rasping voice answered.
Frowning, I fixed the light on there close together faces and felt vomit raise in my throat. Their eyes and noses were gone and their faces were rotting away. Bones were showing through peeling skin. There were large chunks of them missing as if someone had cut off parts of their bodies and I could see things that were meant to stay on the inside.
‘Help,’ the man said again and raised the stump of a wrist at me.
He let go of the woman and reached his other arm out too. The woman followed, bloody arms parting the air and fingers searching. Their hands hit the floor and using this, they tried to pull themselves up and crawl towards me.
I shuffled backwards, my mouth opened and closed but no words came out. Both my hands shook. The flashlight that had been my guide and the knife that had been my protection temporary forgotten.
The woman let out an awful gurgling cry and lunged at me. As her hair flew back, I saw she had no jaw and the rest of her mouth was just a black open hole. A tooth dropped to the floor, clicking away into the darkness.
She grabbed my boot. I screamed, swung my knife automatically and lashed her across the face. Then I kicked at her and felt the force go through her spongy and brittle head. She let go, yowling as best she could with half a mouth.
The man reached for her, feeling his way and drew her back to him. They held each other like frightened children as the curled back under the counter.
Panic shot through me, I scrambled to my feet and tumbled out of the room. Slipping and trapping across papers and rubbish, I threw myself out of the office and screamed into the early morning air, ‘Go! Go!’
Bolting for the truck, I slammed into it and scrambled to open the door. From behind me, came running footsteps and shouting voices. I found the handle, yanked it and clambered in. Distantly, I heard other doors opening and shutting, the truck engine starting and the rumbling of the vibrations as we pulled away.
‘What was it?’ Reggie spoke.
‘Was someone in there?’ boss questioned.
‘Chad, you OK?’ Ben asked, ‘what did you see? A ghost?’
I didn’t hear him. Clutching my knife in both hands, I stared into the blade. There was no blood marking the shinny surface but the rotting face of the woman was reflecting back at me.
Who knew what the old standing stones remembered. I ran my hand along their rough cut, damp moss covered surface as I walked around each one. Did they remember where they came from? Who brought them here and what worship they became a part of?
I pressed my hot, tear stained face to the biggest of the stones. It was a much taller and narrower then the others that made up the wide circle. Perhaps it was the oldest too? Only the stones knew that answer. Breathing deep of the earthy scent and I liked the cold against my skin.
I wondered if the stones had seen sacrifice of animals and or humans and if women had travelled up here to give birth? Religious ceremonies must have been held here. I imagined everyone in my church coming here instead to hear the Sunday prayers and give worship. How did people feel about standing in the elements? Well, the church wasn’t much warmer or drier!
Rubbing my face, I turned and put my back to the stone. It was getting late, the sky was a wet dark grey, clouds heavy with snow and the temperature was dropping fast. I should go home but I couldn’t face my parents and older brother just yet. We have been arguing again about why my brother got to do things I couldn’t. He was only three years older, so why was it okay for him to go out at night with his friends and I wasn’t aloud too?
I had come here, having stormed out of my house. I could have gone anywhere; to a friend’s, to the cafe or to the abandoned farm but no, I had tracked out here in just pink ankle boots, thin tights, mini skirt, fancy top and short jacket. Not the clothes for walking or for being out in the almost minus degree evening air.
There was something quiet, calming and mysterious about the standing stones that had always called to me. I wanted to uncover their history because no one knew their true story. There were folklore and myths, some rough science stuff but no real facts about why, how and who.
The stories and secrets they held fascinated me and I felt I could imagine what the stones had witnessed by being this close to them. Would I have liked living in the time when the circle was made? Would the ancient Gods have listened to me and answered my prayers? Maybe, I would have been a virgin sacrifice, my blood spilling out over the stones as the hungry Gods grinned at my pain.
Ah, maybe it was better not to have been born back then. I lent off the stone and small snowflakes started to fall. I held out my hand and caught one, it melt the second it touched my skin. It was time to go home and face my family. Hopefully, they had no plans to sacrifice me.
My car’s windscreen wipes struggled to clear the heavy snowflakes away. I turned them all the way up and that helped somewhat. Everything around me was either white, grey or black like I had entered an old fashioned movie dead of colour.
I clutched the steering wheel tighter and listened to the faint rock music from the CD player. A glance at the Satnav and it didn’t looked like I had moved much. The time of arrival kept going up instead of down and I gritted my teeth.
If it had been anyone else but my dying father, I wouldn’t be out here now driving from my honeymoon in this snowstorm. I rounded a corner and saw in the beam of my headlights two stark trees clawing at the grey sky.
I had to pee and my ankle was cramping.
Pulling over under the trees, I got out but left everything running. The worse thing right now would be the car to breakdown.
I went behind the tree and got up real close as there wasn’t much cover here. I unzipped, aimed and relieved myself. Feeling better, I pressed my head against the tree and took a few deep breaths of frozen air.
Then for a few minutes, I walked about and stretched. The conversation with my mother came back to me as it had been doing on repeat since I had hung up the phone this morning.
‘Christian, your father is really sick. You should come to the hospice.’
‘I know but there’s a snowstorm and I can’t leave Jan up here alone.’
‘Bring her with you.’
‘And have us both stuck in the snow? No. I’ll come.’
‘I think it’s almost time…’ mother sniffed down the phone.
I rolled my eyes, she and father had been saying that for the last three months. It’s why Jan and I had brought the wedding forward but still dad hung on. I didn’t want to leave my wife in our honeymoon cabin in the magical snow covered forest, but there was no other choice.
Feeling the chill sinking through my thick coat, I got back in the car again and drove once more. Still the snowfall. It was like a blanket on the bare land softening the hardness of winter.
There was no other cars on this country road, sensible of everyone but it also meant the road wasn’t gritted and the wheels felt like they were sliding. I took it easy, watching all the time for dangers because there was also the gloom of night looming.
I thought of Jan and how she would be curled up before the fire, reading and waiting for me to call. Had I done the right thing leaving her behind?
‘I don’t mind either way,’ she had said, ‘do you want me there when he passes?’
‘He won’t pass. He’s too stubborn. This is just another false alarm.’
‘But you are still going?’
‘Yes. For mother’s sake more then his. He’s out of it most of the time anyway thanks to the drugs.’
‘Christian, it’s really coming down outside. Will you be okay driving?’ Jan had asked.
‘I’ll take it easy.’
I hugged, kissed her and said, ‘I love you, wife.’
Jan giggled and replied, ‘I love you too, husband.’
Now, I regretted leaving her and I wished I had told my mother no but what if dad was finally going and I wasn’t there when he died? I couldn’t have forgiven myself to that.
The snow became blinding and I had to slow further. I couldn’t stop though and turned my thoughts to how when I reached the main roads and motorway it would be easier. I tried to relax and just concentrate on what was ahead of me though that was only about a few inches.
Was that lights ahead? I frowned and and squinted. It looked like just one light. A motorbike then? But who would be insane enough to drive a motorbike in the middle of nowhere, in a snowstorm?
A creeping feeling raised the hairs on my arms and had the strange urge to pull over. Why? I couldn’t say. I wrestled with myself for a minute then despite not wanting too, the steering wheel was turning and I was bumping off the road into a low ditch.
Confused, I let go of the wheel and sat there, listening to the wind howling and the car engine rumbling. Where was the light I had seen? I waited for something to pass me by but nothing did. Had it been a reflection off something? I had read somewhere that snow could cause something like that.
Shrugging, I went to pull back onto the road but the steering wheel wouldn’t turn.
‘What the hell?’ I uttered aloud.
I turned the wheel this way and that whilst pressing on the pedals but the car didn’t move. The engine revved then fell into it’s comforting rumbling as I stopped trying.
‘I don’t need this! I really, really don’t need this! Come on! God damn it!’
I hit the steering wheel with my palms and threw my head back into the head rest. I shut my eyes and breathed angrily. Thoughts went through my head and I decided to get out and see what the problem was.
Opening the door, I walked around but could see I wasn’t stuck in the mud as I was frozen ground. The ditch also was only slightly lower then the road. I opened the bonnet and looked inside. Everything seemed fine in there.
I got back in the car, snow melting off me. I picked up my phone and saw I had no signal.
‘Typical! Just typical!’ I shouted.
I blared the horn in anger, got out again and slammed the door shut. I walked up and down, blaming my parents, the cancer, the snowstorm, the car, myself until my legs and arms felt frozen stiff.
Getting back in the car, I looked at the Satnav to see if there was any civilisation nearby. Perhaps, there would be a helpful farmer? Or maybe I was close to the village? The Satnav came back empty, just showing the red lined road I was on and nothing close by.
I turned off the car engine. Not sure what else I could do.
Sitting for a few minutes, I watched the snow burying my car and strangely recalled how one summer holiday my dad had let me bury him in sand at the beach. Mum had taken a photo as we had all laughed. Then we had got fish and chips followed by ice cream. Dad had then carried me back to the hotel as I dozed in his arms.
I smiled and began to recall other favourite memories. Finally, I came to one about my first diving lesson and how I had scared my dad as I had almost hit a wall. We had laughed about that long afterwards and he still wouldn’t get in a car with me driving today.
Shaking my head and laughing, I turned the engine on and the car started up. Handbrake down, foot on pedals, gear in and turning the steering wheel, the car obeyed me and pulled back onto the road.
‘What was all that about?’ I cried.
Unsure, I carefully began driving. Everything felt normal and like there had been no problems back there at all. Shrugging, I carried on my journey.
Two hours later, I arrived at the hospice and went to my dad’s room. He was sleep with the blanket pulled up to his chin. My mother was sitting beside him, face hidden in a tissue.
‘I made it,’ I whispered.
Mum looked up her, her face tear stained and eyes red, ‘he’s gone,’ she stuttered and threw her arms around me.
‘When?’ I asked.
She mumbled the time and as I held her I cast my mind back.
He had died at the same time I had seen that light and my car had stopped working.