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It had been an unseasonably mild November day, and my lounge was flooded with the kind of beautiful caramel light that only seems particular to bright Autumn days. My fiancé, a Sports Coach at a local Secondary School, had left that morning for a tour with his rugby team.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright without me?” Jon had asked before he left, cupping my face between his large hands, calloused from too much hockey.
“Actually, I can’t wait to have a break from you!” I’d laughed, ducking away from his reactionary tickle, and chivvying him out the back door, where I stood to wave goodbye.
“Okay, you little toughie,” he’d chuckled as he climbed into his car, “But remember; no playing with matches, no running with scissors…”
“How about talking to strangers?!” I’d called, as he pulled away, waving a huge hand out of the window.
So now I sat down to begin the long, but not entirely unpleasant job of filling in Christmas reports for the children at Nursery school where I worked. I loved my job, and was good at it, despite the endless paperwork, and gradually diminishing pay. I also, honestly, loved to spend time alone. I’d poured myself a large glass of wine, and set a Nina Simone vinyl playing on my beloved record player, feeling surprisingly content, despite the long night of work ahead.
Jamie is a very polite, well-behaved boy, who has begun to show a real interest in drawing…
…. Sonika has become a lot more confident, and is now very sociable with the other children…
…. Leila has been working very hard on her numbers, and is always the first to tidy up after herself…
The children under my care, all aged from two to five, were generally delightful. They were at that inquisitive stage of life that informed so much of their character; when the seeds of who they’d later become were sown. I filled in the reports at an impressive rate, stopping only to replenish my glass and change vinyl, revelling in the freedom of being home alone.
I worked on, uninterrupted, until there was a knock at the door, which jolted me out of my reverie. Standing up, I glanced at the clock, and saw that I had been absorbed in my work for several hours. The music had stopped playing without me realising, and the sky visible through the large windows was now a luscious midnight blue.
There was a second knock, this time from the back door. I was somewhat startled – I hadn’t heard anyone walk down the path by the house, which led to the garden – but also relieved. Only our friends and family knew that the front door was in fact always locked and bolted, as it led directly into Jon’s office. This meant that any knocks from the back door were almost certainly someone we knew, and wanted to see.
I swiftly passed from the lounge into the kitchen, and opened the Yale lock on the back door, puzzled by the decidedly short shadow in the frosted glass. I swung the door open, and did a double take.
Standing on the back patio, looking down at the floor, was the sandy head of a young boy.
“Oh,” I heard myself say in surprise, before a confident voice interrupted.
“Good evening, I’m so sorry to disturb you. Can I come inside?”
I was immediately struck by the intelligent little voice with which the boy spoke. Still slightly dazed by the sudden interruption, I tried to take in who I was looking at.
The boy seemed to be around twelve years old, with blondish hair and freckled skin. It struck me that his clothes seemed more suited to a younger boy; he wore knee-length shorts, a dark blue jumper with a sailboat motif, and shiny, buckle-up shoes. I’d seen it before; children being dressed by a parent who weren’t quite ready to accept their child’s ageing, instead trying to contain them in a time warp, perpetually six years old. However, these children usually complied with this, either retaining the painful shyness of their early years, or constantly teetering at the edge of a tantrum. However this child was precocious: a confident, calm boy, who seemed unperturbed by the dark closing in around him, and perfectly content to knock on the door of a stranger, unannounced. Nonetheless, he kept his chin tucked into his chest, apparently examining his shoes in a rictus of timidity.
“P-pardon?” I stammered, still taken aback by the situation.
“Good evening, I’m so sorry to disturb you. Can I come inside?” the boy repeated, even reproducing the inflection of his first statement. Crouching down, I tried to peer into his face. His eyes were tightly clenched shut.
“Are you alone out here?” I asked gently, “Have you lost your parents?”
I couldn’t explain the acid-like sense of nerves that was beginning to rise in my stomach. There was something about this boy that was making my fingers tingle, as though he had some terrible deformity, but he looked perfectly normal. I chalked it up to the strange circumstances of a knock late at night, and began to look around for another sign of life. My back garden ran straight into a field, and the nearest neighbour was almost a mile away.
“Can I come inside?” the boy insisted. I was now beginning to feel irritated, and straightened up, folding my arms. I gave myself a small shake, and forced myself into work-mode.
“Why do you want to come inside, hey? Where are your parents?” I asked firmly, despite the jittering in my chest. “I’m happy to help, but I need to you explain what’s happened.”
There was a pause, and I got the distinct impression the boy was deciding what to say next. It was similar to when I found kids stealing biscuits from the Nursery kitchen – I could practically see the cogs turning to generate an excuse. His shoulders rose and fell with his quick breath, and his fists clenched in anticipation.
“Do you promise you won’t be angry?” the boy said, in an expressionless voice. It was almost as if he was reading the phrase aloud for the first time – he asked flatly, awkwardly. The roiling in my stomach was now, decidedly, fear.
“I’m sure there’s nothing to be angry about, ok?” I said, crouching again, and trying to look into the little boy’s face, his eyes still tightly clenched. “Just tell me why you’re wandering about here, and we’ll sort it out.” My imagination was beginning to run wild with the shadows. I began to imagine this was simply a decoy; that he was part of a gang, waiting just beyond my line of vision, to run into the house. Or maybe he himself was a thief, carefully disguising himself as a child. I was beginning to panic, when the boy suddenly seized my hand. He fingers were cold and dry, surprisingly strong. Slowly, as if he was balancing something on his head, he began to raise his face to mine and open his eyes.
I understood why he’d kept his eyes shut.
I found myself looking into two onyx pits, shining oil-back eyes, without pupil, iris or whites. I could see my own shocked face reflected twice back at me. I gasped, recoiled, and the boy’s lip curled in angry response.
“You said you wouldn’t get angry!” he hissed, his child-like face warped with rage. I felt myself flush red with shame, and immediately regretted my reaction. What if it was some kind of birth defect, or disability? I thought of the children at work, and tried to backtrack.
“No, no! I’m not angry at all!” I cried, waving my hands as though fanning a fire, in what I must have felt was a pacifying fashion. “Listen, why don’t you pop inside, and we’ll try to call your parents?” I said pleadingly. I immediately wished I had not.
Just as quickly as the anger had come, it was gone. The boy widened his sloe-coloured eyes, stretching his mouth into a smile that seemed to fill the bottom half of his face with teeth. Now, he truly did look disfigured – as though his mouth had been slashed into an impossibly wide grimace.
“You need to say it properly,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I asked shakily. I was beginning to understand what felt so wrong about the boy. The year before, my grandmother had died from cancer, and I had sat by her bed in the hospital for the last few days of her life, holding her hand. I loved my grandma dearly, but there had been something wrong during those last few days; something sickening. It was as though her dying body had changed the very essence of her; as if she had one foot in each world. Now, just like then, I had that feeling. My whole body was reeling away from an unmistakable presence. Death.
“What happened to you?” I breathed, my own words surprising me.
“Ask me inside. I’ll tell you.”
“No, I –“
“Ask me inside,” he whispered insistently, now calm and compelling. He already knew he’d convinced me. His huge black eyes were now moist, filled with anticipation. He seemed almost to drool.
I blinked, took a sharp breath. My body was moving without my will. I was stepping back from the door, spreading my arms wide, never once looking away from his eyes.
“Come inside.” I said.
“I’m home!” Jon cried as he shunted the back door open with a shoulder. Heaving his bag inside, he listened for a response from Mia. He was met with silence.
“Mia, hello!” he called again, shutting the door behind him and walking into the kitchen, exhausted. A bottle of white wine stood on the counter, open and warm. Jon chuckled, and scooped it up from the side.
“Seriously?!” he shouted, still laughing to himself. “It’s not even 10am! Was it that hard to spend a week without me?”
Then, from behind the door to the hallway, a thud.
“Mia?” Jon called, moving towards the hall, “Don’t even try to scare me, I will tickle you until you-“
The door swung open. Jon staggered back, gagging.
The carpet in the hall was completely saturated. No longer beige, it was impossibly crimson; soaked with blood, surely more blood than one body could possibly hold. The air was thick with it, the walls splashed, as though something had been thrown in it.
The week that had passed since its first spill had let it warm; around the radiator, it was beginning to dry and flake. By the door, a large pile of mail was soaked.
Jon was frozen, almost hypnotised. It was then that he noticed a heap at the bottom of the stairs, like a pile of discarded clothes. It too was covered in blood, but Jon distinctly recognised Mia’s grew cardigan.
His body seemed to understand before his mind did. With an involuntary whimper, he realised something within the pile was moving jerkily, savagely. He had only a moment in which to wonder, horrified, what it was, when an emaciated hand dropped onto the sodden carpet, knocked aside.
As the small blonde figure arose from the other side of the heap with something wet and purplish in its mouth, Jon could only wonder dimly, deliriously which piece of his fiancé was the last thing he’d see.