In 2020, I released what is now considered my debut novel, The Flowers of West Drive, a psychological thriller about a young woman struggling to survive her tragic past. Here is a sample preview of it. 🙂
The scurrying of animals desperate to survive prevented deafening silence in the basement, lasting until a rattrap confirmed its demise. Each trap’s ping bringing me one death closer to freedom. Darkness and isolation force time to pace to a distorted rhythm. The final ping charms around the room, and after I dispose of the body, I’m free to leave behind this carcass-infested dungeon for good.
My hand falls against solid wood, exhaustion preventing the knock. Fatigue showers my body and drowns me with its smell. The decaying corpses barely noticeable. Two more thuds bring Mother to release me, with the door allowing the kitchen’s light to engulf the basement; allowing my eyes one last longing glance at a life free from worries, before completing my ascension back to the world.
‘You took your time,’ Mother says, rushing me into the kitchen before closing the black door which guards a torturous Hell. Its blackness isolated in a room brimming with white décor. Even Mother’s eyes, normally a pale blue, near white. Mother once told me Ms Woodfield, who left this house to her, believed the kitchen should always be the purest of white; from the units to the flooring and the walls, a tradition Mother continues to honour. The only slight colour changes have grown from the smoke of Mother’s cigarettes greying the tiled walls.
‘Yeah, sorry,’ I mutter. Calmness washes away fatigue as keys confine the part-time villain of my nightmares to its dungeon. The mouth of the beast screeching as the key turns. ‘There were more bodies than normal,’ my eyes descend to my crimson hands. ‘More blood.’ My words quiet; Mother makes no notion of hearing them. The paint covering my hands languishes between fresh and stale. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘No need to apologise, Lilian. I was just making an observation.’ Only Mother calls me Lilian; as a kid, I loved it: it sounded so grown up, yet as time passed, it became synonymous with punishment. ‘Right, better eat your dinner soon, it’ll be going cold.’ She retrieves a plate of spaghetti and meatballs from the microwave and places it on the table with a fork. ‘I made your favourite.’ She leans back against the counter and lights a cigarette, despite the aroma of a deceased cigarette’s smoke filling the room. New smoke pumps into the air with every drag Mother takes. This time it’s nostalgic: warm, kind, welcoming.
I fake a smile. ‘Thanks, but I’m not that hungry,’ my eyes close awaiting the response. ‘Sorry.’
‘No need to apologise; it’s probably cold by now, anyway.’ The part-smoked cigarette sits on the brim of the ashtray, desperate to fulfil its purpose. Mother grabs the plate and scrapes the food into the bin; each scrape coarser than its predecessor. Her words act as a ruse, a prelude to the main course: the lecture. Families such as ours should be grateful for the food we have on our tables. The same lecture every time. This time, though, no lecture comes. ‘I assume you know why you’re not hungry?’ Her words walk the tightrope between serious and playful. The cigarette jumps back between Mother’s open lips.
‘Yes, I know.’ Confusion and fear reign.
‘Good,’ the plate clatters against its unwashed brethren in the sink. ‘Let’s play Guess-Guess.’ Her smile honest: the past four years forgotten. ‘Guess-Guess who’s upstairs?’ Her question met with nothing more than bemusement.
The rules of Guess-Guess, a game invented to pass the time on long trips, are straightforward: the guesser must ask yes-or-no questions to find the mystery identity. It’s a version of Twenty Questions, but it’s ours. It retired the day of my first period; the day Mother stopped seeing me as a child. The day the sands of time allow you to begin maturity should be a joyous occasion. Instead, sadness will forever tinge that day’s memory.
‘You’re not a child anymore, Lily,’ Mother said. ‘So, let’s leave childish games to the past, shall we?’ In the years since, Mother has scorned me for a variety of reasons, with each followed by the same procedure: I run upstairs, hide under my quilt and imagine a world where Guess-Guess has no age restriction, a world where Mother would run upstairs and apologise in the form of offering a game, and we would laugh and joke until their identities came to light. The game would quench my heart of its thirst for anger. Yet Mother would never come.
Mother’s impatience led me back into the moment. ‘I’m not sure.’ The tone in my voice honest, but scared. A thick, dark cloud forms over my mind: anticipation.
‘Lily, you’re better than that.’ Her tone playful. Her smile demanding. The cigarette nearing the end of its life.
The cloud on my mind parts and allows a thought through: someone is upstairs. Mother hasn’t specified, yet my mind places them in my room, waiting for me. Maybe it’s a local celebrity coming as part of a charity event. Perhaps it’s a long-lost family member who has contacted Mother and wants to see me. The possibilities excite, which wash away the fear. ‘Okay. Male or female?’ Always start with a question which eliminates fifty-per cent of answers.
‘Female. All of them.’ All of them? Why would a group of females be visiting me? I’m not the social type, anymore.
‘Have I met them before?’ Maybe a local girl-group has heard my history. Perhaps Mother reached out to them and begged them to come. Begged four strangers to pity the freak.
‘Yes; plenty of times.’ The ashtray welcomes the dying flame of the cigarette, signalling the end of its lifespan. Mother grabs the green packet and sits them next to the ashtray. The window stands watch, opened enough to suck out Mother’s smoke; Ms Woodfield’s hatred of smoking forced Mother to sneak out during the early hours for a quick drag, before allowing the night to wash away the smells of cigarette and shame.
Mother has never remembered when she started smoking, yet she’s always said the stress of pregnancy turned it from a casual hobby to a severe addiction. We all have our addictions. Despite being underage, a cashier at the time fancied her and served her. And she’d visit him in revealing attires (push-up bras teaming with low-cut tops, worn atop a mini skirt), bought solely to get cigarettes. He’d flirt with a pretty girl; she’d get cigarettes. Everyone was a winner. He still works there, and once I used Mother’s technique (and clothes) to buy my one-and-only pack of cigarettes from him. It was one of the most uncomfortable things I’ve ever done; I could’ve vomited after the wink I attached to the name on his badge: Sebastian. He’s handsome, even still in his mid-to-late thirties. His ring finger sat empty, ashamed of the dent forced upon it. It wasn’t empty for long, as the next time I tried, a ring hugged his finger like a long-lost friend. A ring which blinded him to me (although my long-sleeve shirt and baggy trousers helped, too), and informed me against trying for a second pack.
Faces and names race through my brain, trying to find a group of girls whom Mother would welcome into our home. ‘Have they come here to see me?’
Feeling the need to aid my guessing, Mother walks over to the drinks cabinet and pulls out a bottle of wine and a corkscrew, and places them on the table. ‘They’ve come to see you.’ Mother, the bottle and its partner wait for my mind to put the pieces of the puzzle together, but only after my eyes drift upwards towards the calendar did things make sense: it’s Thursday. I take a half-step back as another cigarette begins its demise in Mother’s mouth. She always smokes more in the evening.
‘Mother?’ My voice coarse, struggling to settle on an emotion. ‘You don’t mean?’ My body froze.
‘I sure do. The Flowers are here. How great is that?’ While Mother’s tone matches her words, I cannot follow in her excitement. The last time Mother mentioned The Flowers was as she vowed never to entertain them in our home again. The Flowers are, or were, the only real friends I’ve ever had: Poppy, Ivy and Rose. We named ourselves The Flowers, and we were inseparable at our group’s height. Poppy was the first to take pity on me when I was fifteen and skiving school; until the police caught me. The police’s intervention forced Mother to free me from school by telling them I was being home-schooled. The Flowers never attended my school, and they’re a year older, yet during my life’s darkest spell, they offered light. A reason to be excited every time the school’s bell sounded off at 3:20; on the rare days I went.
Age, boyfriends and jobs soon took over, and our group resigned itself to meeting every Thursday. They’d come to my house; we’d drink wine and gossip about their crazy lives. They always had such wonderful stories to tell, stories which I loved hearing. Stories I could never match.
The last time I saw them, Ivy and Poppy had started university (Ivy studying English Literature and Poppy studying Classical Art), and Rose was working her way up the career ladder (the last time we spoke she was the assistant manager of a small store).
Despite how much I loved The Flowers, Mother detested our friendship. She’d always lie and say they were using me for my home and the free wine (‘They never even bloody pay for the wine,’ she’d say every week as if it were her catchphrase) while lambasting how they weren’t ‘true’ friends, whatever that meant. I never questioned The Flowers on Mother’s allegations, because even if they were using me, I didn’t care: I had friends. Then one week Mother got her wish, and The Flowers didn’t come. No messages. No reasons. They never came the following week, nor the week after, and they always ignored my pleas. That was nine months ago.
Mother’s tears of joy contrasted with my tears of sorrow in the ensuing weeks and months which followed, as the realisation I was alone once more nestled in my brain. She pretended to be sympathetic in her way: ‘I’m sorry, but I told you they were bad news,’ she’d say while hugging me as I sat at the window; a dog waiting for its owner. ‘They’ve probably found another poor girl so desperate for friendship she’s blind to their manipulative behaviour.’ That was Mother on nice days.
‘We’ll need more wine,’ I jest, still unsure of the whole situation. My eyes lead Mother’s to the lone bottle stood on the table.
‘You know where my purse is, take some money and get yourselves more later. I’m sure they won’t mind waiting an extra ten minutes.’ She hates giving me money.
‘Are you sure? We don’t have to drink wine; I’m sure they’ll understand if-’
‘Nonsense,’ she interrupts. ‘It’s Thursday, so you need wine. Now, you’ve kept them waiting long enough, go enjoy yourself.’ She leans back against the counter, folds one cigarette-less arm across her chest and smiles. ‘You’ve earned it.’
‘Hey, Sis,’ in strides Alexa, my baby sister; well, in my head she’s a baby, but she’s getting bigger and bigger. ‘Do you have a spare copy of Wuthering Heights? We’re studying it in school.’ She’s everything I wish I was at her age: thin (but not too thin), pretty, confident, athletic. She’s nearly the same height as me, which, from a big-sister point-of-view, is annoying.
‘Alexa? I can’t believe how big you’re getting.’
‘Well, I am thirteen, now,’ she clicks her fingers and poses. The behaviours of teenagers confound me; despite my retirement from being one still fresh. ‘So, Wuthering Heights?’ Her eyebrows display impatience.
‘Yes, yes, come up and I’ll grab you my copy.’
Alexa skips up the stairs; she has such love of life. She’s yet to meet the perils life will have, nor has she ever been desperate enough to wear revealing outfits to charm a grown man: long may that continue; there’s enough trouble in our family’s history. I smile back at Mother, who takes one final drag of her cigarette and crushes it next to its Lambert and Butler brother. She nods, and I head upstairs, wine and corkscrew in hand. My pace more sombre than Alexa’s; I’m walking into the unknown. Nine months of complete silence.
My brain highlights every seed of doubt and tries to cut it; maybe friends disappear for a while with no major reason. Plus, if nothing else, the last nine months will have plenty of stories (from their side). Stories of school, and men, and work. Stories of adventures, because they had adventures. None I featured in, yet the way they told the stories made me feel like I was there. I was there when they went camping, and Ivy peed in an empty wine bottle and served it to Poppy. I was there when they drove for five hours across the country just to buy a packet of crisps. I was there when they broke into the old, abandoned house on Coedroad Lane, but ran away scared when an army of rats came charging towards them.
Halfway up the stairs, my eyes capture the image of Mother, hand-washing the dishes while humming away The Penguins’ Earth Angel. Her singing voice is shy, however, it’s better than what you’ll hear on the radio. The whole picture an artist’s dream scene.
‘Hurry up, Sis, haven’t got all day,’ Alexa’s impatient words bring me back to the moment, and I finish ascending the stairs, forgetting for a moment the group of girls who await my arrival.
Every Thursday I clamoured for The Flowers to include me once again in their group: I would listen for the doorbell to ring for hours, scaring the postman on multiple occasions; Mother hated Thursdays because of it. A keen eye could detect the day of the week by the smile etched on Mother’s face: on a Friday it borderline covered her whole chin; by Wednesday you needed a pirate’s map to find it.
My eyes embrace the image as I enter the room: Poppy sitting with her legs crossed texting away on her phone (telling her mother she’ll be out late tonight), Rose sitting on the bed with the television remote in hand, flicking through the music channels (she always has control of the television) and Ivy testing my makeup by my mirror. This picture is how Thursdays should be. It happened so frequent it became the norm; a sight which I could’ve explained to Alexa before entering. Today, though, there’s confusion wafting in the air: theirs caused by my lateness, mine caused by their presence.
‘There you are,’ Rose chirps as I enter the room. ‘We’ve been waiting here for ages.’ Abandonment dominated Rose’s childhood; from her parents to countless foster-families which followed. From time to time her personality has rubbed us the wrong way (the first time Ivy slept with a man he dumped her the following day, yet Rose’s words angered Ivy more than helped ease her hurt), however, we’ve always given her the benefit of the doubt. The constant string of abandonment must have had some psychological effect on how you interact with others. Her domineering behaviour granted her the leader’s throne. ‘Who’s the kid?’ She glances over at Alexa.
‘Oh, guys, this is my younger sister, Alexa.’ Alexa bows; such confidence and showmanship. ‘She’s not staying; I’m just getting a book for her.’ I walk to the bookshelf and find my copy of Emily Brontë’s novel. ‘Here, now, clear off.’
‘Thanks, Sis,’ she smiles and skips off back to her room. The door closes, hiding our secret club away from any watching eyes.
‘She’s cute,’ Poppy the first to speak. ‘I’m assuming she doesn’t go to West Drive High?’ West Drive High School was my old school and not one I would ever allow Alexa to attend.
‘Of course not,’ I try to make light of her remark. ‘She goes to your old school.’ The Flowers were lucky enough to attend St. Andrews High on the other side of West Drive; its reputation much more positive, and none of The Flowers ever badmouthed too much about their old stomping ground.
‘Nice. So, where’ve ya been? It’s like twenty-past six,’ Rose interrupts, eager to get the conversation back on track.
‘Yeah, yeah, sorry, I had to clean the basement. It was full of rats, and,’ my bloodied hands a siren across the room. ‘I better go clean.’ I place the sole bottle of wine on my table. Rose the first to notice its lack of company.
‘We will need more than that.’
‘I know, I know, I just wasn’t expecting company,’ a cloud of awkwardness rears its head. Silence. ‘Mother’s given me money, so I’ll be heading to the shops later to get more.’
After Rose had time to deliberate, she nods and accepts the plan, which allows me the opportunity to leave and wash my hands in the upstairs bathroom. A little water cleans me of this deed. I scrub and scrub, yet the red stains prove a challenge. The water’s temperature rising with every passing second: cold, mild, lukewarm, warm, hot, boiling. My body ignorant to the burning heat of the water until it reaches boiling point, snapping me back to the moment with its sting. I jolt back, my hands clean. Spotless. Notice-me clean. Notice-the-freckles clean.
I ignore the returning freckles (where have they been?), wrap a cold hand-towel around my hand and return to my room. ‘Well,’ Ivy says the second my body passes the threshold. My eyes ask her to elaborate. ‘Are you going to open the one bottle or not?’ She smiles. Whenever she acts Rose-ish, she always follows her orders with a smile. I’ve never worked out if it’s to calm anyone annoyed by her domineering behaviour, or an extra layer on top of her game, however, I appreciate the smile.
During our group’s infancy, we used to hang around and gossip; they’d tell me the goings-on at their school: what boys looked fine, what girls were letting themselves go, what teachers acted human. I knew their school more than mine. But, one day, Ivy brought along a bottle of wine: and so, a Thursday staple began. Ivy has long been far more interested in drinking alcohol than socialising; sure, she’d contribute her part by offering stories on which bed she woke in on the prior weekend, or how many beds (what she calls a ‘special’ weekend), yet she’d be the first to get drunk. The sheer number of messages she received every Thursday was amazing, all from lads believing their one night with her to be something more. She had such confidence with men. They didn’t say no. And they always wanted more.
I offer a slight giggle, still unsure why they’ve returned, yet I oblige and open the wine, pouring four glasses. There wasn’t much left in the bottle afterwards, which allows Rose to offer one of her famous looks. Sometimes Rose’s eyes spoke the words her throat didn’t have to say. And they were clear. We’re powerless to do anything about her looks. And it’s not just us: men have abandoned their date because of her eyes. They have their superpower; the ability to manipulate your mind into doing her bidding or supplying a service she requires. Whatever she wanted, from whomever she wanted.
‘I know, I know,’ I answer her eyes. ‘I’ll have mine then I’ll nip to the shop for more.’ I sit, crossing my legs, and fight back every urge to demand an answer to their disappearance. I may not like the answer. Maybe they had found someone else, though she became strong enough to rebuff their manipulative behaviour. I’m not that strong.
‘So, how are you, Lily?’ Poppy asks, eager to kill a forming silence. Are they as uncomfortable as me?
‘I’m good. Well, I’m okay,’ I struggle for the right adjective; my mind reasons to use a variety. It was always Poppy who questioned how I’m feeling or what I’ve been up to (the others latched onto anything considered worthy, yet they’d never be the ones to instigate the topic). Of The Flowers, Mother only liked Poppy. She had this way of making girls like her. Boys, not so much. I think she’s gorgeous, we all think she’s lovely, however, boys don’t. Before their disappearance, she was the only virgin of the group. She probably still is.
My response isn’t a great way to engage in conversation, and soon another lull threatens; Ivy defeats it by telling us about John. ‘He’s a solid 7/10,’ she always starts by scoring their looks. ‘His flat was an absolute mess, but I let that slide,’ there’s always something she lets slide. I drift in and out of her story, unlike Poppy and Rose who interrupt various scenes with questions, ranging from the specificity of the mess to how good he was in bed (another category she scores them on: John got a six). She has such passion when she’s detailing her exploits; a passion I’ve never had. What makes her so carefree and passionate about sex? I wish I had it. In the early days, I assumed the stories were all lies. Afterwards, I thought she sought encounters to please us with a story. Speaking to her, though, you can tell she loves the whole adventure, from the seduction to the kiss goodbye. ‘The first time I was bent over the living room sofa,’ she says with such excitement, despite never wanting to see John again. I’ve always dreamed of being able to find a story like hers to offer. ‘And, as like all men,’ her passion turns to mock-annoyance. ‘He wanted me to go down on him without him repaying the favour.’ Rose and Poppy laugh at John’s intrepidness. I laugh because I have to.
‘Men,’ Rose shakes her head. ‘Me, me, me. That’s all they care about.’ Mischief wears her face. ‘Did you do it?’
‘Of course, I did.’ Her smile shows satisfaction, regardless of her complaints, and we laugh again.
As Ivy’s most recent escapade finishes, the bottle tips out the last of its wine. Rose’s eyes meet mine.
‘Well, I guess it’s time I get more wine,’ I interject, and Rose’s eyes congratulate me on following their rules.
‘Fancy some company?’ Poppy always asks if I want company, however, the evening has lulled her too much to have meant it.
‘It’s fine; it’s only a short walk.’
I grab my jacket from the cupboard, but Ivy stops me before I could leave. ‘Don’t be too long, babe,’ she says. ‘I don’t know how long I can delay talking about Anthony.’ A second lad. A special weekend. A gentle laugh escapes my throat.
‘I’ll try,’ I jest, and leave.
Mother’s still washing the dishes as I reach the bottom of the stairs; the water a thick red from the washing-up liquid. ‘How is it,’ she began, ‘seeing them after all this time? Must be strange.’ Had her eyes lifted from the plate, she would’ve seen the honest answer in my face.
‘It is, yeah, but it’s nice. Anyway, I’m going to the shop,’ I wait for the refusal of money, despite Mother’s offer. Yet it doesn’t come. Every step towards her purse nerve-wracking, yet no argument or denial comes.
‘There should be £30 in my purse, use that.’ There’s a strange tinge of sadness taking the money, however, it’s Thursday: Thursdays need wine. I turn and make my way.
The walk itself is not too long, with enough images to keep my eyes satisfied. First, there’s the park; it’s only small, no doubt built to fill a spare bit of land and to give the houses nearby something to smile about. Should they have children, that is. I loved playing there as a kid. I’d spend hours and hours climbing and running and laughing. Mother and I would walk to the park together, we’d walk through the gate together, and then she’d unleash me onto a world of make-believe and adventures. I always adventured solo. Mother would go straight to the tables and cackle with other mothers who’d also unleashed their children.
I loved playing in the park too much. ‘Clean your room, or we won’t be going to the park on Saturday,’ she’d order. ‘Eat your carrots, or you’ll be coming straight home tomorrow after school,’ she’d threaten. ‘How about setting some rattraps in the basement, and we’ll have an extra hour in the park?’ She’d bargain. She went through with everything: if my clothes lay sprawled across the floor, we didn’t go to the park that Saturday; if one carrot resisted me, we came straight home after school the next day; after the first time ridding the basement of rats, I got that extra hour.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. As many bad memories as good haunt the park: me, the poor little pigtailed girl, begging in vain for others to join her adventures; the rain stopping me from the outside world; Mother using the park as reason to rid me for an hour, while she got to spend quality time with other adults. But still, it warms my heart: it feels like home.
The park near bereft of life; dusk scares away the wants of playing children. The only body inside a youngish man rocking on the swing. There is something sad about his demeanour. Mother warns me about strangers; Mother warns me about a lot of things. So, he’ll be a mystery I may never understand.
The next road divides the park and the town’s castle. It’s not the grandest of castles, however, it still presents a historic shine to our otherwise forgettable town. More childhood memories explode into my mind, starting with the young pigtailed girl sliding down the castle’s moat on those fantastically snowy days. The angle of the moat languishing between dangerous and safe. The pigtailed girl doesn’t care about the risks; she slides on homemade sledges. Age allows eyes to see the ways of getting hurt: a slight hole in the floor, a misplaced rock, other kids. To children, that stuff is meaningless. Once I hit a rock and fractured my arm, and Mother banned me from the castle for two months. I healed, I served my time and I returned.
Terraced houses accompany the rest of the walk; built during the industrial revolution for local workers (or so the story goes): all two-up, two-down and circle where the paper factory used to be. Two empty buildings lay dormant next to it; however, I’ve never researched what West Drive made during its history. Mother’s parents used to live on one of those streets (and true to the story, Mother’s father worked at the paper factory). I’ve never seen Mother’s parents (they severed contact with her months before I was born), so I’m not sure if they still live there. I hope they don’t: it’d be too sad to think of a family split by mere metres. Only when defending herself in arguments, would Mother mention her parents: ‘You should consider my punishments lenient, I used to get the belt.’ And she never mentions them in a positive light. The tone of the argument always dictated who got the blame for their falling out: sometimes it was my fault, other times it was theirs. However, it was never Mother’s.
After the rows of terraced houses comes the bridge, and through there the little local shop. It’s one of those shops where you can memorise the entirety of their staff. Likewise, they know their clientele; they greet you as you walk in, and they’re always willing to have a friendly little chat while you paid. My favourite colleague is Natasha; I used to time when I went to the shop so I could see her. Any excitement at seeing Natasha again fades as the bridge’s walls clear, revealing a man behind the kiosk. A man I’ve not seen before.
He smiles at me as I enter the shop, switching from leaning against the counter to standing to attention. I half-smile back, take a deep gulp and head over to the wine section. His eyes cast a cold shadow which crawls along the floor and greets me. I scan over the New Zealand section and find a decent priced (yet not too cheap) bottle, from a company called Gunn’s Lake. They’re new, but they’ll do. I approach the unknown man at the kiosk with four bottles.
‘Evening,’ he offers, before even looking at my shopping. His gaze an insect crawling across my face. An insect I can’t swat away.
‘Hi,’ I mutter, placing the four bottles on the counter.
‘Four bottles on a school night? I like it.’ He scans the first bottle and offers a tooth-filled grin. His gaze crawls over my body and nestles on my bandage-covered hand. I should leave. I should run. I should scream for help.
‘I’ve got friends round,’ my tone matter-of-fact. My hands clench, desperate to scratch at my skin, to take away the sting from his gaze.
‘Nice. Where’s the party at?’ He scans the bottle a further three times and doesn’t ask for my I.D. Is he fishing for my address? Why would he want my address? I don’t know what makes him think there’s a party. Why would he even want to come? I don’t know who he is, and he doesn’t know who I am. I smile, as if what he said was funny, and pull the money from my purse without asking him the price. ‘That’s £19.96, please,’ he says on cue. Where’s the party at? What party? ‘What’s the weather like outside?’ Why is he asking so many questions? I interlock the fingers on my hands and rest them against my stomach. Each finger presses into the back of my fists. ‘I finish in just over an hour, but I’ve forgotten my coat.’ He laughs, am I supposed to laugh? I offer that same smile again.
‘It’s not too cold.’ I must answer. His gaze’s crawl retreats a little. I so desperately want to swat it away.
‘Sweet. Here’s your change.’ He hands over the 4p. Money I would’ve sacrificed to have avoided his gaze those extra few seconds. ‘Enjoy your evening. And don’t drink too much.’ He laughs again. I smile, grab my shopping and leave. The insects loosening their grip the closer I get to the exit. Natasha always offers a warm and welcoming shopping environment. He offered nothing but gloom and darkness.
I’m desperate to get home, back to my haven. This time, there’s no pondering about Mother’s parents, no reminiscing about sliding the castle’s moat on merrier days, no excitement about The Flowers’ return. The thump of heavy footsteps appear behind me, freezing my body on the spot. I turn and see a figure.
I race off, walking a near-jogging pace. With every entrance to a new row of terraced houses I pass, my neck spins: the figure’s still there. I scan each street, looking for a person to save me, but they’re hiding. I could be on the news tomorrow morning: another missing person in West Drive, because of their hiding. And they wouldn’t care.
Those same insects from the shop return, crawling along my spine.
My heavy breath partners the clanging bottles. The empty evening allows the sound to reverberate; I’d even laugh at the sound on a merrier journey. Each clang separated by a stomping footstep. ‘You know what you’ve done,’ the figure calls out. My pace quickens.
My mind fills with nightmarish thoughts of what this man will do upon reaching me; each footstep he slams brings those nightmares closer. His shadow comes into view, towering over mine. A ghastly shadow. A sinister shadow. ‘You know what you’ve done.’ The insects crawl from my spine to my neck. The arms of the shadow stretch. I’m in his reach.
Without thinking, I race into the park and ready my voice for the biggest scream I’ve offered in years. Then he appears: the stranger on the swings.
In the lone light of the park, he’s more handsome than I should think, but I was right: sadness consumes him. The scene a black-and-white photograph; with light and shading used to illustrate the thoughts and feelings of its subject to perfection. If only I could capture this moment. I walk towards him, trying to silence the bottles.
‘Hey,’ I offer.
He looks up, not even noticing my presence before, offers a wry smile and gives me a ‘hey’ back. It’s rare I focus on the looks of someone I meet, yet there’s something about him which attracts me to it. As I get closer, details of him become clearer: from his face’s unshaven chin and heavy eyes to his choice of expensive-looking clothes. His eyes could tell their own story of a man who’s kind and understanding, yet vulnerable. Sadness radiates from him, assuring me of my safety.
‘I’m sorry to intrude,’ the bottles silence. ‘But is anything the matter?’ When I was at my lowest ebb, I hated when people pretended to be interested in you. Teachers would pull me into a room and question how I’m feeling in myself, how I’m coping with schoolwork, how my family life is back home. Yet all they wanted to know is why I slammed Charlotte’s head into her locker. My questioning could come across as insensitive, but it’s honest. I don’t play games with their emotions to get to the root of their sadness.
‘My mother died today.’ The air cools, and I struggle to inhale. For a moment, my body convulses, and my pupils shake.
‘Oh, oh god,’ I say as my body calms. ‘I’m so sorry to hear that.’ The air slow in its return to the spring evening temperature. The taste of oxygen in my lungs delicious.
‘You don’t need to be,’ he reassures. ‘We weren’t that close.’ His fingers interlock; there’s more to this story.
‘Still, it’s your mother.’
‘Yeah,’ he sighs. I can’t help but fight off the thoughts to compliment his face. ‘I’m sorry, if it’s all the same with you, I’d rather not go into it too much.’ His outward expression tries to switch to one of bravery, yet his eyes cannot hide anguish. I offer a comforting smile, unsure how to act.
The only time I’ve ever met death was with Richard, the elderly neighbour next door. His wife had passed away five months prior, and I had to ask Mother what to say because I was afraid of speaking out-of-turn. Thankfully, the five months which had elapsed healed him enough of the pain to find the funny side of me stumbling through words. I dread to think about a conversation the morning after her passing. He committed suicide a few days later, he couldn’t live without her, and as much as I liked him, I couldn’t go anywhere near the family members passing in and out of his home.
‘Sure. I’m Lily, by the way.’ My body sways in search of a way to act.
‘Hey,’ he offers out his steady hand for me to shake. ‘I’m Brad.’
‘Mind if I sit?’ I gesture to the empty swing next to him, and he accepts. We sit in silence, watching the world pass by. I’ve grown to appreciate the night over the last three-to-four years, thanks to my abnormal sleeping pattern. The way the moonlight glows everything in a black-and-white hue. The way the streets quieten, allowing peace. A full moon shines its light on the park. At least he’s not a werewolf.
In view the castle stands, guarding over the town. Guarding over the families doing their family things, with lights on here and there, and the occasional body moving about their home.
As a child, I loved the colour violet, so much so I begged Mother to send me to Athertyn Primary, despite it being much further away than St. Victoria’s, purely because of their uniform. In St. Victoria’s we wore navy blue. ‘It’s basically the same colour,’ Mother used to say. However, as I’ve got older, I’ve grown to appreciate grey. The way it rests between white and black, between life and death, between Heaven and Hell.
‘Are you from round here?’
‘Yeah, Dolphin Street,’ he points towards the middle row of the terraced houses. ‘When I was younger, anyway. My mother used to bring me here, before, well, it doesn’t matter. After I found out, I felt I had to come here to reminisce, you know?’ He’s trying to smile, and I long to reassure him he needn’t maintain a false emotion for my sake, even if his smile is cute.
‘I live over there,’ I’m not sure if he cares, and his eyes don’t linger too long where I point. ‘My mother used to bring me here, too. Maybe they used to talk to one another.’ We’re the same age, so we would’ve met each other here.
‘That’s a nice thought, but my mother wasn’t the nicest of people, so I can’t imagine they would’ve talked for long,’ he laughs. His fingers release each other, revealing a photograph of a beautiful woman with a beautiful young boy in this park on a bright, sun-filled day. The young boy smiles, the woman cherishes motherhood. What happened?
‘How did she, you know?’ I can’t say the word; it sounds too final, too grotesque.
‘I’m not sure. We haven’t had much contact lately. It was my aunt who told me.’ He folds the picture and tucks it into his jacket pocket. There’s something alluring about the mere way he carries out every action. As if each rehearsed to perfection. ‘So, what brings you here?’ His voice desperate to change the topic.
‘Some friends came around, and we didn’t have enough wine,’ I relax the bag onto the floor; the bottles mock me by making their presence known. ‘I haven’t seen them for a while, so we’ve got some catching up to do.’
He’s intrigued: never has a boy been genuinely interested in what I have to say. In high school, a few mocked me with pretence, however, I was far too inexperienced in the world to spot the difference between interest and sarcasm. They pretended to care, yet they just wanted something from me, often to humiliate me, as Henry did before our year nine prom. After inviting me and getting my hopes up, I arrived at his house as agreed, yet there everyone stood. Laughing. He would never slum with the likes of me. To rub it in further, he kissed his actual date in front of me. Mother warned me about high school boys, but I didn’t listen. And she was right. However, Brad’s eyes confirm he’s different from Henry.
‘It’s nice that you’re all still friends despite the gaps in seeing each other.’ His tone keeps secrets, yet again I refuse to pry. ‘So,’ the subject once again switching. ‘What was your favourite thing here?’
He nods his head out towards the park and has a look of apathy. It’s small, housing four swings (two adult, two baby, the latter of which I can still squeeze in to), two animal-shaped rocking seats, a pair of slides (one for the small kids, one for the big ones) and a seesaw. Despite its limited choice in the eyes of adults, to children, they offer a diverse choice of activities. Still, as I got older, I became more fascinated with the real challenge which the park offers: scaling the random building sat on the edge of the park’s grounds. The challenge all big kids want to conquer. It wasn’t straightforward: first, you had to be small enough to climb under the gated fence (it’s far too tall to climb over it), then use the pipes and cracks and ventilation shafts to climb, at an awkward angle, before leaping to grab hold of the roof. Mother hated seeing me up there and always warned me about it beforehand. However, when she was with other adults, her threats offered no meaning.
‘The swings,’ I say to his eyes, hoping mine hide the lie. ‘Getting higher and higher, you know? Watching the world zip back-and-forth.’
His laugh is cute. ‘Wanna see who can swing higher?’ He smiles back. I think I’d do anything those eyes of his ask.
‘Game on.’ Despite my body demanding rules and regulations, we set no real parameters for the battle. We each use different techniques, with Brad’s terrific physique allowing him to scale to great heights early on, while I rise inch-by-inch.
‘Slow and steady wins the race’, Mother would always say when she and I raced. When no other parents demanded her attention, that is.
‘Catch up,’ he teases.
Feeling the urge for victory, I push my legs harder and harder to close the gap. The buildings and views become nothing more than streaks of varying dark colours zipping back-and-forth. My body desperate to stop, yet determination forces my legs to kick. As I get within reaching distance, though, Brad jumps. I’m still swinging, and each of his movements become photographs: the picture of him landing, him standing tall against the moonlight, him turning around. The final image him watching, waiting, for me. There’s genuine happiness on the face of the man in these mental pictures I’m taking.
Despite my fear, I allow the girlish urge to impress the cute boy overtake every logical part of my body, and I imitate his jump. I don’t mimic his landing. My face crashes against the floor, the grass softening the blow, and Brad comes rushing to my aid. The pain worth seeing him care for me. He sits me up and helps dust off blades of grass.
‘I’m assuming you often slowed down,’ he mocks as the rusty metal holding the two swings creaks. ‘Before getting off.’ That smile again.
‘Most of the time, yeah,’ I admit. There’s no use in even trying to lie after offering such a poor effort. We each laugh, still sitting with him guarding over me, like a father over his child or a bodyguard over his celebrity. Each scenario brings warmth and safety. There’s a longing inside me to stay here for the rest of the evening, though a quick flash of The Flowers waiting for me snaps me back to reality. ‘I should probably get going,’ my voice a mixture of nervousness and regret.
‘No worries, I understand,’ he stands and helps me to my feet. ‘Thanks for this.’ I’m not sure what he’s thanking me for, but I smile.
I wipe away the remaining blades of grass and dust off my clothes – under no circumstance must Mother see them – and grab the bag and wave at him goodbye. The otherwise silent evening accompanied by the rusty swing still rocking and the bottles of wine dancing with each other.
‘Hey, Lily,’ Brad calls over and jogs to the gate. ‘Mind if I leave you my number?’ A tingling rises up my spine and flushes heat into my forehead. ‘So, we can battle again after you’ve had some practice.’ He looks over towards the swings and back at me. My face burns – he must be blind if he cannot notice – yet I smile as if to say yes. He grabs a pen and paper out of his jacket and writes his number; I can’t help but admire his face in the moonlight. ‘Here,’ he hands over the paper, and I look at the eleven beautiful numbers with a cross below them. ‘You don’t have to message me,’ his demeanour copies my shyness. ‘But if you want to.’ He smiles into my eyes. He is interested in me. To him, I’m not the victim of a prank in the making. To him, I’m not the home-schooled girl with no friends. To him, I’m not the pathetic mess who only cries wolf to those unable to affect anything. To him, I’m a clean slate. Which means I can be whatever I want to be. I can be whoever I want. Instead of the victim, I can be the victor. I smile, pocket his number and walk away. There’s a fine line between creepy and charming when someone watches you; he cushions himself on the side of the latter.
I urge to take far too many longing looks back at him. My eyes desperate to catch even the slightest glimpse of his face. The park soon becomes blocked by houses in my street, and with that, his face fades. It’s annoying the way I’m acting is the way those high school girls acted, the ones I hate, yet I can’t help myself. I allow myself a cute smile at the thought of his number in my jacket. However, flashing lights soon wipe away that smile.
I come to a halt three doors away from my house as an ambulance drives towards me from the other end of the street. Its light gets closer and closer as my heart beats faster and faster. Anxiety. Relief. Fear. ‘No, no, no,’ I shake my head with vigour. The ambulance nears. I fall to my knees, clutching my chest to calm my racing heart its thumping drowns out the sirens. The ambulance races towards me. Flashes of images plough through my mind: a hammer, the dishes, rats, a swinging lamp. The ambulance getting closer. A hammer, the dishes, rats, a swinging lamp. Closer and closer. Hammer, the dishes, rats, a swinging lamp. Blood drips to the floor from where I burnt myself. Hammer, dishes, rats, lamp, blood. The lights of the ambulance near, faster, faster, hammer, dishes, closer, closer, rats, lamp, faster, closer, blood.
Then it turns off into a connecting street and disappears.
My heartbeat returns to a semi-normal rhythm, and I wipe the blood away from my hand.
‘Where on God’s green Earth have you been, young lady?’ Mother scorns as I enter, still washing the dishes.
‘I went to the shop to get some wine, remember?’ My speech quickens.
‘Since when has it taken that long?’ Her voice balancing aggression and calm, unable to decide. My body shakes in fear.
‘It was really busy, Mother, I swear. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’
‘No need to apologise,’ her voice calms, stopping me from repeating apologies. ‘So, how many bottles did you get? Oh, did you get my washing-up liquid?’
‘Yeah, I asked you to get me some when I gave you the money.’
‘Sorry,’ my brain searches for the memory, but it comes up short. ‘I guess I didn’t hear you.’
‘Really?’ She smiles. ‘Never mind, no need to apologise. So, who was working?’
‘That’s a shame, I know how much you like Natasha. So, what was this new girl like?’
‘I didn’t speak too much,’ the fridge houses three bottles. ‘I got four,’ desperate to change the subject. ‘With the one we’ve drunk; it should last the night.’
‘I should hope so,’ she turns and grins. Her voice layered with sarcasm. ‘And, you haven’t drunk in a few months, so take it easy.’ My pupils shake as we stand staring at each other, each momentarily afraid to speak; the elephant an ignored third member of the conversation. ‘Anyway, go on,’ Mother breaks the tension. ‘They’re waiting.’
I leave, saying nothing else, though offer a smile of fake thankfulness. I grab the bottle which evaded the fridge’s cool life and head upstairs. A moment’s peace on the upstairs landing allows me to save Brad’s number into my phone under the name ‘B’. I’m sure I can pass it off as someone else if Mother or Alexa spot it.
‘Where’s my chocolate?’
I shake my head, the discomfort of that shopkeeper’s watching gaze fills my body. I fight off the urge to shudder, to scratch away a surviving insect from my back. ‘I’m so sorry, Alexa, I completely forgot.’
‘You’re such a disappointment. Move,’ Alexa’s frustrated body barges passed en route the bathroom, and a large thud shakes me on the spot.
‘You can’t please everyone,’ I mutter.
‘Better late than never,’ Rose speaks first, holding her empty glass aloft.
‘Sorry, ladies,’ I open the bottle and begin pouring into Rose’s glass. ‘There was a large queue. And fear not, we have three more bottles downstairs just chilling. So, tonight can begin.’
‘Did you meet anyone cute in the queue?’ Ivy offers while licking her lips, an action I hope is for the wine entering her glass.
‘No.’ I’ve read many stories over the years about lie detectors and their uses, and why they’re not used in a court of law to find the truth. “Many people think using a polygraph is as bad as dunking putative witches in a pond,” one article read. “It wouldn’t be a justice system,” argued another. Accurate lie detectors could grant guilty/not-guilty verdicts in moments. Punishments would fall on wicked men. However, some bad men know how to trick the test. Wicked men like him. Every single tell a lie detector notices in a lying person; I display when I lie. I pray nobody notices. The wine diverts their attention from the definite colour change of my skin, as Brad’s face enters my mind.
‘The question is,’ Rose says before taking a sip. ‘Were you looking?’
My glass fills last yet empties first. ‘No, I, just,’ little beads of sweat come to life, screaming Brad’s name at the top of their voices. ‘Waited and queued and left.’
‘The last time we spoke, you wanted a relationship. You felt you needed one as a way of coping.’ I hoped they wouldn’t remember this.
The week before The Flowers disappeared, I was at my emotional lowest. Mother and I were arguing more, and everywhere we went were romantic couples; they were teasing me with their love. I wanted that. I needed that. To feel loved, to feel wanted, to feel happy. To feel.
This boiled over on their last visit, which ended with Mother kicking and screaming at me about how they weren’t real friends. I drank too much, and romance came flooding out of my mouth to them. ‘You, like us all, deserve love,’ they’d say. They even offered a shortlist of candidates who met their approval. Mother, however, was steadfast in saying no.
My begging for love didn’t cease when my body reached sobriety. I asked, I begged, I pleaded every single day. And then The Flowers never returned.
‘I was in an awful place.’ Honesty. ‘But, I’m better now.’ Lies.
‘So,’ Ivy interrupts. ‘Anthony was a pretty sweet 8/10.’ Tension fades as our minds fill with the animated adventures of Ivy Lorraine.
The rest of the night was perfect. It didn’t take too long for my mind to ignore the lapsed time as I became absorbed in the countless stories which I had missed; stories which The Flowers were all-too-willing to repeat with never-ending laughter. Ivy followed Anthony’s chapter in her love life with one man after another; some even brought on chuckles from Rose and Poppy, each aware of that escapade’s end. She even talked about a threesome she had when she bumped into a couple seeking a third partner (a story which really embarrassed Poppy). The more alcohol she drank, the more details she revealed.
Rose’s stories centred around her newfound love of football (her family had always been huge football fans, yet she had never taken to it). She’s got herself in West Drive’s women’s team and soon became captain. Her most detailed story focused on a tense-sounding match where she won the best player award and scored the winning goal in a 5-4 victory over their fiercest rivals. She offered stories of their wild nights out, yet they felt tame by the standard Ivy set.
Poppy, meanwhile, couldn’t even hope to offer anything as dramatic, with her choosing to focus on her university studies (despite Ivy’s insistence on the first year ‘doesn’t count’ and she should ‘live a little’). She’s found a career passion she wants to follow, and I admire that more than any success Ivy or Rose have had. She wants to be a teacher. Awkwardness floated in the air when she said this, however, it soon washed away with the mention of a boy she’s crushing on.
‘Details, now,’ Ivy demanded.
‘Cute or sexy? Fit or fat? Brainy or braindead?’ Rose questioned.
‘He’s nice’ was as much as they got, despite their pestering for more. They knew ‘nice’ meant fat. Ivy has dated her fair share of chubby men, yet they don’t score high on her system. The guys would be ‘a cute 4/10’ or ‘a sweet 3.5/10’. She’d point out with precise enunciation she was on top, and we’d laugh with her. Poppy was more reserved in talking about boys because the guys she’s likely to date differ from the ones sniffing around Ivy and Rose’s heels. Poppy doesn’t get random Facebook requests with comments praising her looks. Poppy doesn’t have thousands follow her on Instagram waiting for the latest bikini selfie.
Despite it being my house, I wasn’t the centre of attention. They remembered my butterfly collecting (although there’s a big board hanging above my wall with the butterflies I’ve caught). Butterfly collecting became a major hobby of mine a few years ago after I left school. They offered comfort and beauty in an otherwise disgusting and ugly world. Mother was very much against me starting to collect butterflies (not only due to the cost, but because I was ‘murdering God’s creatures’), yet she soon conceded. It brought me joy at a rough time, and that was worth every penny for her. My eyes glossed towards the collection when they asked, and I scanned straight for the middle one: a green and white striped butterfly: the first one I collected. I was sick for a week after killing and framing it. Killing it was one thing, yet sticking pins in it to flatten it out and waiting was a whole different field. I vomited daily, more in the mornings, however, the guilt soon faded.
The size of the collection impressed them (with it more-than-doubling since their last visit), yet Poppy had to fight back the tears after seeing the killing jar sat on the windowsill. She objected against me collecting them, citing how it’s inhumane to kill them for my selfish wants. She hated it so much I used to hide the jar when she came in, and she shuffled her seat to face away from the butterflies.
I know what she means: killing butterflies is horrible. And I feel horrible for doing it, though the act of fury is brief. And they’re beautiful. And they will always be beautiful, forever flying above my bed. Preserved forever. And that makes killing worth it.
Mother even joined us for twenty minutes at one point, before she went to bed. She never used to pop by and chat. Alexa forced her way into the room as well and introduced her personality in the most Alexa-way possible. We laughed and joked together, and everything I’ve ever wanted was in that moment.
In the worlds of Doctor Who or Harry Potter, I could capture memories and store them as paintings. These magical pictures offer much more than your usual photograph: they offer emotion. They offer life. If one of those magical photographers captured this moment, I would buy a million copies and hang one in every room in every house I’d ever visit. I’d look at the picture, it’d repeat the memory of Mother joking with The Flowers and Alexa over-acting to impress, and I’d be happy everywhere I went.
Mother helped with the bottles, and four was just enough. The Flowers took off about 1am, long after Mother had collapsed in her bed, and they all hugged and kissed me goodbye, before skipping down the street. They ricocheted their voices off every surface as they repeated the lyrics to a song I didn’t know. After their drunken bodies fade into darkness, I pull out my phone and message Brad. “Hey, it’s Lily x”. Ten minutes elapsed while I waited for a response, yet nothing came. I undress and tuck myself into bed, switching off my phone after one last check for a reply. The effects of the alcohol helping Planet Lilian swirl around the planets and stars floating on my ceiling.