PROLOGUE: The Little Boy Who Flew To The Little Girl’s Window
When I was around seven years old, a boy flew to my bedroom window. Wide-awake, I’d been taking comfort in the moon’s silvery illumination of my room, while considering alien life forms in far away galaxies. A tad deep for a child perhaps, but think less existential crisis and more ‘it’s a shame for me.’
When I heard the boy’s knock at my window and saw him floating beyond it, I leapt from my bed to greet him. I had yet to see Salem’s Lot, so didn’t link imminent death to peculiar airborne boys. How did he fly to my window? I neither knew nor cared. Surrounded by the dead 24/7, a boy at my window, even at night, couldn’t freak me out. In fact, so desperate was I for intimacy and connection, I let him in without a second thought.
“Hello.” I smiled, as yet unfazed by the gaps between my teeth. “Come inside, it’s cold out there.”
He attempted to smile, but the corners of his mouth struggled with the effort. Something about his tacky pallor suggested he might be unwell. With fluid-like, even alien movements, he climbed in. His hand shook when he reached out to me.
I backed off instinctively, always consumed by the dread of touch. Still, the boy continued to offer me his hand, and his serene beauty couldn’t mask his sorrow once his emotions wrapped around me like a cool cloud. His snowy skin glistened with a kind of frost, and regardless of potential pain, I felt compelled to offer comfort. Again, without a second thought, I reached to hold his hand, wincing when a flash of intense anxiety signalled the incipient agonies and images of psychometry—psychic touch being one of many oddities to blight my existence.
But when our fingers met, only a kind white light and pleasant tingle passed at the point of contact. No pain, and no visual histories stormed my mind.
Despite offering more of a physical contact than a Shadow, sadly his touch didn’t quite count as flesh on flesh. A Shadow looks like the blurry version of their living selves, but the boy appeared completely real, yet wasn’t. Somehow my fingers had passed through an image of him, as though he was a hologram, but I felt him in a way I cannot feel Shadows.
The dead—wandering Shadows, or ghosts to the laymen—were always a burden. I had no real friends, especially my own age, and hope that this might soon change, made it difficult to swallow. Tears itched for release, but I’d already learned how to restrain them. I only broke that contact a moment later because I found it hard to breathe, what with that and his own abundant emotions merging with mine.
Whoever or whatever he was, we’d shared painless touch—a miracle any way I looked at it.
“Please, sit.” I pointed with a shaking finger towards my bed. “Let me help you.”
The sallow boy shook his head and moved his lips to speak, but nothing came out. Grimacing, he flung his head side to side, his long raven hair whipped across his face. Still, no sound disturbed the whispers of nosey Shadows lurking as always in every corner of my bedroom.
One Shadow—Ada, the best Granny substitute ever—was unusually absent. She’d have gotten rid of those other pesky Shadows for me, no problem. I wasn’t sure what she’d make of the boy, but I felt sure she’d help him, because she’d always helped me.
The boy flung himself onto my bed and stretched out like a bright white, sweating star. What baffled me most was how the bed hadn’t dipped beneath his weight. The quilt remained unwrinkled and revealed no signs of anything living. Yet he lived. I felt it.
Soon his almond-shaped, midnight blue eyes popped open and latched onto mine as if trying to beam his thoughts into my brain. Tiny feet crawled across my scalp. I panicked, scratched my head and danced about, but no creepy-crawlies fell to the floor. The weird sensation passed when I remembered, with a jolt, to be quiet. My parents would be furious to catch me awake so late.
And what about the boy?
A moment later, he left the bed and stepped towards me. His tears fell like diamonds to our feet, and the purest melancholy oozed from him into me, like jam from a donut. Extreme empathy has always allowed me to see and feel the strangest things.
His chalk-white skin suggested sun sensitivity like mine, and since we both lived while our part of the world slept, and his sadness matched my own, I recognised a kindred spirit. And he appeared to be around my age. He was the most striking yet sorry sight I’d ever seen. Or have encountered from that day. I couldn’t lose him.
If I make him well, we’ll be best friends forever.
I’d seen my mother, Helen put bottles of medicine in the bathroom cabinet numerous times. Some of them said they helped cold and flu-like symptoms. The boy looked positively frosty, so he could use help with the cold. I tried to decide on an action plan.
His weightless body sat on my bed once more as he stared at me with the face of a seraph. Concentration screwed his features until it filled the air around us with tension.
The creeping sensation returned to my scalp. I wrapped my hands over my head, and soon heard a boy’s voice inside my head.
“Hello? Can you hear me in there?”
“Ugh?” was all I could say.
The voice continued, “At last. Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.”
Like Ada, he spoke in my head, but it was somehow different acoustically. More like an echo. Shadows never made my head itch either. Still, I felt safe and dropped my hands to my sides.
I whispered, unsure if he’d hear the mind talk I used with Shadows. As though, if he’d had to enter through a back door in my head, the front door wouldn’t work with him. Or something like that. Plus, I enjoyed talking to the living. It was a rare pleasure for me. “Oh, I can hear you. Can you hear me?”
He grinned, then came closer. “It really worked. Wait till I tell … they’re going to … ” He shook his head when I frowned at the suggestion of others. “Anyway, I’m Abby. You?”
“Oh. Well, they call me Rat.” I glanced across the landing at my parents’ bedroom door, my cheeks on fire. “Everyone else calls me Lu … but Luna is best.” I held my breath while shuffling absentmindedly towards him.
When I raised my eyes to his, Abby’s head tilted. My hair fell in my face. I left it there, grateful for the privacy it provided. When he said nothing more, I looked at him and noticed a lone tear clinging on to one of his long, black eyelashes. I wanted to catch it—a part of him to keep, to absorb—but I let it drop and watched it disappear.
To prove I could be a good friend, I instructed him to wait and hide until I returned with medicine. He whispered, “Don’t go,” as his holographic fingers passed through my forearm. I enjoyed the sensation.
“Be right back,” I said. Then I left; I had a mission, and it felt like the most important thing in the world.
Dread built with each step across the cavernous landing; if my parents caught me, they would be beyond mad. They weren’t kind when I made them mad.
Once I reached the bathroom, I climbed onto the bath ledge, beaming with surprise at my achievement. After stretching up to the wall-cabinet, I grabbed the large brown cold and flu medicine bottle triumphantly, a bubble of celebration in my belly.
But a second later, I lost balance.
The bottle slipped through my fingers and dropped into the iron bath. The smash echoed off the tiles and chrome, boomed out onto the landing and through to my folks’ bedroom. The shock made me wobble until I followed the bottle into the bath. My foot came down hard on sticky shattered glass.
Unable to stifle the yelp of pain, I knew one of my parents would soon investigate. I removed the shard of glass with a quick swipe, bit my lip to stifle further cries, and wiped the wound with tissue.
I’ve made such a mess.
After loosely wrapping a beige towel around my foot as a makeshift bandage, I limped over the cold, wooden floor towards my bedroom with as much haste as possible.
I refused to get Abby in trouble by being an idiot. My folks, like everyone else but me, couldn’t see Shadows, but I had no idea if they’d see Abby. I didn’t know what he was. He was alive though, and I wondered if that fact made a difference. I couldn’t take the chance.
Sweat and nausea made my head whirl, and when I reached my room and looked away from the hypnotic taunts of my bloody foot, I found my dad, Jack waiting for me, arms folded. Startled by his huge presence, I squirmed, “S-sorry ‘bout the noise Daddy.”
Jack rubbed his eyes at the spectacle of me, and no doubt at the blood and medicine trail I’d left on my mother, Helen’s polished floors.
He dragged me to my room by my hair, threw me onto my bed and seized my injured foot, “Is this it? Is this the only wound?”
My scalp throbbed, “Err … ” I couldn’t think. I nodded.
Dad huffed, inspecting my foot. “And which medicine is that I smell?” He stood over me, his hand held out like a bat, its threat potent.
Flustered, I instinctively told him some of the truth and cursed my natural honesty.
He set about his search for the sick boy, ripping the quilt from my bed, looking under my bedstead, peering beneath the chest of drawers, and inside the wardrobe. He found no one. I sighed with relief, but immediately missed my new friend.
Jack shrieked, “There’s no one here. You lied to me.”
I had to think quick, “Must have dreamed about him, Daddy. I wouldn’t lie to you. Promise.”
Exasperated, his face contorted. “Oh stuff this.” He scratched his ruddy bed-head. “Never touch medicine; do you understand?” Lowering his voice, he pulled my face up close to his. “Tell me the rules.”
I edged away from him. Empathy showed me the wrath seeping from his chest, “Don’t tell about it, don’t touch it, don’t ask about it. Don’t tell anyone the rules.”
“Good.” He snatched my foot. “So what the bloody-hell is all this?” He pointed at the medicine mixed with blood smothered on the towel.
I tried not to look for Abby, but I welcomed the distraction, “I … I got the sniffles, thought I needed medicine, that’s all. Sorry, Daddy.”
Please leave me now.
“You’ve never had so much as a cough in your life, so stop lying to me. Why did you want this stuff?” He held the evidence to his nose and inhaled.
What could I say? He was right; I never got poorly. Well, not in simple ways. I needed to try something else. “K … I just wanted to taste it.”
He exhaled. “Oh for Christ’s sake, girl. It’s not pop.” An odd look screwed up his features. “You didn’t feel like tasting anything else too, did you?”
I frowned. He took my foot and shook it, “Like blood?”
I shook my head and grimaced at the awful suggestion. The very sight of it made me nauseous, dizzy, the smell overwhelming. Although, I’d only just noticed that.
“Blood is what?” His is silhouette imprisoned me in menacing darkness.
When he seized my arms to pull my face towards his, he pinched the skin beneath the cloth of my nightie, “Correct, but do you understand why?”
I winced in pain until he flung me back onto my bed again. He straddled me, clutched my ears and licked around my mouth. His touch sent images I couldn’t understand, then. They hinted at perversion, or perhaps the remnants of a horror flick he may have watched that night: blood-splattered breasts, a strange looking woman who cackled, a weak whimper in the background, sounds of someone or something in pain, and a sob followed be a tortured scream.
The psychometric pain of contact sent flashes of electricity across my face and made me heave. At least that made him stop. “Don’t you dare vomit on me!” Jack scampered away.
I cried out, remembering his questions. “Poison in the blood kills people. I never … I wouldn’t.”
Jack curved his mouth into a satisfied smirk. I cradled my bloody foot, then wiped my mouth on the back of my nightie’s sleeve, and trembled.
Please go. Please go now.
Jack glared, “What’s wrong with you? What am I going to do with you? You were sent to torture me.”
A tired and irritable Helen joined us to moan: “Shall I phone them? Pack her a bag? Did I hear her say someone’s here?” She scowled at me.
Jack snapped at her, “Shush, leave her alone. Go back to bed, I’ve dealt with it.”
Thank you, Daddy.
Helen grumbled as she swooped up to me anyway, then smacked my cheek before Jack could stop her. Quick and sharp: Helen’s way. My face swelled up in moments, and my ears whistled. I knew from experience it took hours to stop.
“Back off, there’s no need for that!” Jack stepped between us. “She didn’t do anything … and I can’t find anyone.”
Helen yawned and glared at me, her loathing and irritation hung around her like a brown mohair wrap.
Jack fussed, scrutinising my face. “She’ll need a week off school if you’ve bruised her again, and she’s due back tomorrow.”
“She woke us up.” Helen shrugged. “She deserved it.” Uninterested in Jack’s concern, or me, she shuffled back to her room.
I tried hard to understand them both. I tried not to cry or move or make a sound, though my right cheek stung and my foot throbbed and bled over the bed. Shadows loitered, confused and annoyed at the commotion, unbeknown to my folks.
Sweet old Ada—Shadow warrior and Granny substitute—arrived just then, apologising for not being there earlier; she came everyday but other’s needed her too. Then she spoke softly inside my head, “Remember. Become small.”
I held my breath, focussed on my fingers, and waited in silence as Jacks feet moved towards me.
He ruffled my hair, “Go to sleep, Luna. School in a few hours.” He backed up, clicked off the light and closed my door behind him, then turned the key in the lock.
There were many times I wished Ada could cuddle me, stroke my hair and tell me all would be well, like normal Grannies, and that was one of them. But she could only whisper lullabies in my head.
That awful night my folks decided to take me to the first of many appointments with Doctor L. Best: a female psychologist who informed me with a smile, “Abby isn’t real, but you are a very sick girl.” She was beautiful but icy cold.
Stronger prescriptions followed to make you feel better. I refused to take them at first; they made me muddled, not better. They simply injected me once a month until I did. Electroconvulsive therapy and regular confinements in a private hospital soon followed.
I don’t recall the first diagnosis, but many labels claimed a piece of me thereafter.
Always the same hospital, no matter where we lived. Heavy red curtains hung in every window—always closed—and it smelt of medicated soap and something sweet, and the towels were inscribed with a red insignia.
Those visits became a set of foggy nightmares, and worse, remained a threat of what would be if I didn’t behave. The flying boy, Abby didn’t return for months, but even in their scarcity, his visits punctuated my gloomy childhood with a rosy tint. Oh, how I’d drink him in and hold on until my lungs burned for air. He came less frequent as the years ticked on.
Something unique lingered within me in his absence, something endured like the telling of a fairy tale. He’d awoken a thirst in me for connection, a thirst I couldn’t quench elsewhere. Not even Ada, and later, Flo—my only friends in a cruel world, and Shadows—could compare.
I always longed for intimacy and there is no pleasure in longing.
Eleven years later, things had changed. Indeed, the question I most struggle with is this: “How in God’s name did you end up on a psych ward, blood under your fingernails, images of patricide flooding your fried mind?”
Although, wait. I’m storming ahead of myself. First, I endured another awful Sunday lunch with Jack and Helen.
1 Savage Sunday Lunch
The weather forecast proclaimed clouds, showers, and mild sunny spells. I checked out the window to find merciful blobs of white and grey cluttering the defeated summer sky.
Lovely. Should be safe today.
I busied myself for Sunday lunch with the folks, stomach in knots. The words mom and dad were enough to give me nightmares, yet I couldn’t escape my parents or their hold over me.
Halfway through brushing my teeth I recalled I’d done them earlier, “Crap.” I spat then stared at the frothy gunge in the basin.
Wonder if today they are kind?
“What am I thinking?” I stomped about my tiny flat. “I need lots of cash. A lottery win would be nice, if I played. We could escape those scumbags and their spies for good.” I rubbed more sunblock into my face, then grabbed my car keys as I passed by them on the way into the living room.
My best friend Flo, a Shadow (Shadows hate being called ghosts), tolerated my routine rant while contributing exaggerated sighs and bitchy remarks. She knew me all too well.
My car keys pressed against my palm until it hurt. “Imagine, no more Sundays, no more food like puke and …” I gulped, not prepared to consider their favourite side dish of cruelty, “… well, wouldn’t it be great?”
I forgot what I needed to do again, and searched around the bohemian chaos for clues. I’m no neat freak like my mother.
“Yeah, yeah.” Flo agreed from within my head, where our conversations took place. “But what’s the worst that would happen if you just called them and said, ‘Hey you pair of evil freaks, screw you?’”
Ever the Devil’s advocate. Flo appeared before me, a rare event. A lazy Shadow with a host, she never needed to flex her spiritual muscles. Ada—the first Shadow to visit me for my benefit and not her own, and who’d mothered me like shade on a sunny day from when I turned six—argued that Flo should “exercise” (or leave the sanctuary of my headspace) more often.
Flo didn’t like the idea much. But whenever she became upset, angry, or even wide-eyed-excited, she’d leave my head, cross her arms over her tiny chest, wear a frown woven through fine, dark brows, and tap her little foot soundlessly. She wanted me to see the concern in her emerald eyes, to acknowledge the slant of her head. Sometimes it swayed me, but not this time.
“Yeah, I don’t need to see you to know how you feel. Get back in here.” I tapped my head. “If you need a task, prepare yourself for later when you’ll need to console me like only you can.”
She wanted to help, bless her. She helped much more than she knew. Sulky-faced, head slung low and heavy limbed, Flo approached me and popped back into my head. “You talk the talk, but you’re too forgiving. You’re right, I’ll never understand them marbles.”
She was right. She usually was … annoyingly.
Flo sighed, “Oh, come on then, let’s get it over with.”
Throughout the short drive from my flat to my folks’ large, detached, three-storey home in the suburbs, I kicked myself for trusting the damn weather reports. Again!
My folk’s porch offered little shade, and on the way to it, I sought refuge from strong sunshine beneath the shade of overhanging willow trees, and the slant of their house.
Inside their porch, I rang the door bell (Beethoven’s Fifth, no less), hung my protective gear: coat, hat, and gloves, on the hooks provided, and removed my leather ankle boots, as per my mother’s house rules. I fidgeted and noticed a hole in my sock while waiting for someone to let me in.
The mostly glass walls and door of the front porch afforded no protection against the harsh glare of the sun, but I leant into the meagre shade and held my breath against the discomfort of the glare. Helen never rushed on my account.
Once she opened the door, she withheld eye contact as usual. Her scrutiny moved from throat to feet, and her head shook at the hole and one protruding appendage.
I scrunched my toes before stepping into the lion’s cage; I mean Helen’s dominion. Bile rose up to greet the fumes of furniture polish, cooking cabbage, and the Vanderbilt perfume she always wore.
“Hello Mom.” The click of the latch made me gulp on a tender gullet as I closed the door behind me.
“Ugh,” came her retort before she spun around to walk away, rewarding my courtesy with her back. “Grab the vegetables from the kitchen and take them to the table. My hands are full.” Her hands were busy, but only with twisting a tea towel at the bottom of the stairs. She bellowed up to my dad, “Jack! Are you ever coming down?” She tapped her foot and grumbled. “Oh, for pity’s sake, get off the phone will you?” Jack could always be found upstairs in his office or away at work. Rarely in the company of his family.
Helen spent her life at the bottom of the stairs. She enjoyed complaining, and we enjoyed hiding from her.
She continued to tap her foot, which made me want to stamp on it. She pushed and pulled on each breath while I stood and watched each exaggerated sigh. Each one, a habitual replacement for what she would do to Jack if she had the stones.
I loathed her weakness, perhaps because it reminded me of my own.
What would I say to you if I had the stones?
Nerves got the better of my bladder. “Oh. Hang on. I need the loo. Sorry.” I rushed past Helen, nervous smile pasted on my face. “Won’t be a mo.” On all fours, I scampered up the stairs, desperate not to keep her waiting. I tripped over my chunky feet, and Helen sniggered when I banged my chin on the top step.
My chest tightened and palms sweated.
Flo wasn’t pleased, “And so it begins.” She paced and chanted in my head, “Deep controlled breaths.”
I clambered past my not so dear father who slouched in his office, phone stuck to his right cheek.
Plain magnolia paint covered the entire house. No photographs or artwork hung on walls, no carpets on any of the wooden or plain tiled floors, no colour or pattern adorned fabric hung in windows or arranged on beds. The house, devoid of personality or creativity, made soulless by its inhabitants. The separate WC I entered was no exception.
Even over the noise of my own, err, ablutions, I heard Jack’s telephone conversation. His office sat next-door, so only loo-roll thin walls stood between us.
“Okay, Darling. Gotta go. Yeah, that’s Helen’s screech and the runt is next door, no doubt listening.” He scoffed, “Yeah, I know, I know. Well, I’ll see you at seven—same room. Bye.” A strange choice for a lothario, Jack still earned the tag. Neither classically handsome nor especially charming, women still adored him. Apart from me, or course. But he made us all need his attention, his approval, somehow.
“Come down now or I’ll bin it. You hear me?” Helen’s voice trembled.
A former psychology teacher, Flo once joked that a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder would fit Helen’s behaviour. The trigger? Most likely my birth. We also liked Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder and plain old Evil Cow. We’d discussed this in fits of giggles over way too much Merlot. But it led to tears at bedtime.
“Yeah.” Jack sighed. “On my way, Love.”
What do you know about love? What do any of us know?
Jack reclined in his leather chair, hands behind his head. The light from the laptop screen bathed his smug expression in a white glow when I glanced in on my way downstairs. He let out another sigh, only he made this on long and slow. A smirk crept over his face when he saw me. He knew I’d never tell Helen of his clandestine plans. I didn’t need to.
I’m not the only one in the house who enjoyed denial. Oh yes, I learned that skill and little else from my mother.
“What?” Helen paused for a response at the bottom of the stairs, “Oh, why do I bother?” she grumbled and returned to her kitchen to bang pots.
I often searched my folks for a piece of myself; if they could recognise themselves in me, would they despise me less? Short, plump, and grim with pinhole-sized grey eyes, Helen had little going for her. I wondered why Jack chose her for his wife. Why would anyone? I’m her complete opposite; I pick-up on emotion as easily as I hear or see. She is devoid of empathy. Unless you’re Helen or a psychopath everyone can do what I do, but my empathy is more finely tuned than most. It’s also more difficult to ignore.
“Why are we here again?” asked Flo.
I cringed at the exaggerated clatter in the kitchen, “Oh great,” I moaned within my head this time. It didn’t do to converse with Shadows aloud when in the company of the ignorant living; they lock you up for that. Trust me, I know. “Helen’s in yet another bad mood, which will be my fault again. Despite the fact, it’s always about Jack.”
“Let’s leave this chamber of hell, these demons of Beelzebub.”
I cringed, “Don’t nag. And quit with the hyperbole.”
Flo wouldn’t stop. I imagined she wore a grimace and rung her tiny hands. “I know they still scare you, but you’re an adult now, you have rights.”
The ominous atmosphere made my hands shake. Sweat dribbled over my back, “Quiet, I can’t handle them and you.”
Flo should have been right, but I couldn’t trust my folks to consider a silly thing like my rights. I could trust them not to though, so I swallowed the medications prescribed by Doctor L. Best without argument, and I ran to them when they called. I couldn’t recall much about those hospital visits, but I knew enough to fear the threat of returning. Jack could get Doctor L. Best to section me to that place of nightmares in a heartbeat.
I stumbled into Helen’s immaculate cabbage infused kitchen and stammered, “S-sorry Mum.”
Oh, now where’s she gone?
“Mum? Where did you go?” With a naïve heart, I searched plain walls and empty shelves for a family picture displayed with pride, like in normal homes. As always, the only photograph came framed in silver, taken on their wedding day. It mocked me from her imposing kitchen dresser until tears burned behind my eyes. I sniffed.
Why do I continue to give a shit?
I held onto my breath, chest engorged with the toxicity of over-cooked vegetables, detergents, and Jack and Helen’s malicious energies, rocking back and forth on my feet, “Oh, where is she, Flo?”
I scanned the kitchen for a reminder of Helen’s command.
When Flo died, she lost bipolar disorder and found telepathy. A cool swap. I could have asked her to help me locate her, but nothing’s ever that simple. Awkward things like morals come into play. Plus, once, when I tuned into mother-dearest years ago, it took my Shadows their very best efforts to save me from the blackest time; Helen’s horrid mixture of rage and apathy shook my core. As soon as possible, I learned how to avoid brutal verves, so I haven’t read my folks for years. How could I expect Flo to read their foul thoughts if I couldn’t bear their emotions?
Likewise, my nosey empathic tendrils like to seep out, to ingest and read all forms of emotional energy, unrestrained. It takes focus to keep my guard up, to keep them tethered until required.
People can be exhausting.
To conform to Helen’s rigid house rule of ‘no outdoor wear indoors,’ I’d had to remove my gloves, so I stuffed my hands deep into the pockets I’d had fitted on every all-in-one, sun (and touch) defence outfit I’d had handmade. It’s the safest place for them without gloves. However, while searching out vegetables I accidentally touched something I’d yet to adjust to.
Tsk! “Ouch.” I yelped at the sharp sting. What was that? Must be new.
Each object has its own energy and the potential to tell me its history through touch. That process feels like an electric shock from a plug socket, or a nasty paper cut, although the level of pain depends largely on its age, power, and story. I can adjust to new energies if I’m prepared to go through the pain an indeterminable amount of times. It’s often not worth it, so I avoid touch altogether. Who likes pain? And my psychometry has strengthened with age, especially with people. Touching people hurts most.
I staggered back against the wall, “Shit, Helen got new tea towels; duplicates of the old ones. No imagination. When did she get them?” I waved my hand like an idiot, and hissed and winced to reduce the pain. Never works but everyone does it.
The pain of touch comes complete with a vision. This time it brought the stench of faeces and sweat, a gnawing hunger, fatigue and melancholia, and the irritation of persistent flies around my face. “Doesn’t that witch have a soul?”
“You all right?” asked Flo.
“Yeah.” I scurried to the kitchen sink. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say she did that on purpose.” I used my long sleeves like a barrier, albeit a flimsy one, and filled a glass with tap water and guzzled it back. “What I’d give for a Merlot.” Sat at the table and chairs, I enjoyed the cool and calming water as it filled my mouth and cooled my throat. Thankfully, my internal flesh is safe from the dangers of touch, unlike the external. I’d fantasised about being turned inside out more than once.
For a breathless moment, I sat with my hands restored safely to their pockets, then gasped and fought tears for tiny brown bodies across oceans, working long hours for scraps. “Remind me to sign up to a charity for kids in sweatshops.”
“Okay,” I snapped, aloud. Not a good idea but I got away with it.
Humanity is a mixing pot of light and dark. A rainbow of auras and emotions flow around us and through us, unnoticed by everyone but me. It is both inspirational and depraved. It can also be dreary, confusing, and bloody painful.
Once I could breathe again, I remembered Helen, “Crap, what the hell did she want me to do?” I scanned the kitchen again but found no saucepans or plates to take to her. No clues remained save the stench, though even that was marred with eau de bleach. “Can’t you remember, Flo?” I stamped my foot on Helen’s beige linoleum floor, no doubt mopped several times by lunchtime.
“Sorry. Too busy hating her to give a jot.”
Right on cue, Helen arrived, “I asked you to grab the vegetables ages ago. Too difficult for you, aye?”
“Oh yeah, I remember now, but where are they?”
I held onto a breath and hoped to become smaller, less annoying. I’m a lanky cow, so it never worked. She dripped with sunlight, and a film of sweat lined her brow, “Well? I’m still waiting.” Helen ground her teeth, spun on her heel, and left the kitchen before I could reply.
Strange how they spent their lives treating my own mental fragility, but I suspected Helen teetered on the edge of a nervous breakdown her whole life.
An uncomfortable familiar feeling lurked like the smell of something the week after it made you sick. I get a lot of that.
“Crap, she’s seeped in,” I told Flo. “Ugh, on my tongue. Tastes like the floor of Hell.”
“You let go of those finger-thingies, that’s why. Pull them back. Get a grip!”
My inquisitive tendrils had escaped me while I’d been indisposed. I had to rein in the crafty beggars, and quick. “Okay, here goes.” I closed my eyes, pictured my tendrils like floating ropes, grabbed each one tight and pulled on them with imaginary arms. Funny, those arms are always dressed in pale green woollen sleeves. I never wear pale green. “Done. Right! Locate vegetables, eat slop, get gone.”
I spat Helen’s taste into my water glass on my way to the sink. Oh, bloody hell. If I were a vegetable, where would I be? Just then, I noticed the new steamer from the corner of my right eye, behind several unused cookery books. “Oh. Typical. When did she get that contraption? Great, the veg will be ruined!”
Flo nagged, “Do I have to tell you again to leave this torture chamber?”
“Shh!” I used my sleeves to grab the broccoli and cabbage, slopped them into white bowls and ran out to find Helen. “Mom, I have the veg, where are you?” Her caustic floral stench led me into an empty dining room. The table not set.
Loud clatter came from outside and made me twitch. Beyond patio windows dressed in floor length, beige drapes and white net curtains, Helen sneered at me. She waited for me on her new decking beneath the cruel glare of the sly midday sun.
Damn the weather woman! Damn Helen.
Opening one of the patio doors, I leaned back towards shade, “I have the veg for you.” Helen had set the patio table ready for lunch.
“I can’t believe she won that from a crossword puzzle in a trashy magazine. A wonderful oak tree reduced to a torture kit,” sighed Flo.
More stomach acid climbed my oesophagus as I continued to ignore an irksome Flo and the look if pleasure on Helen’s face.
Helen turned. Her back faced me while she stood to move a knife here, a fork there. “Mum …” I awaited her attention, her next command. She ignored me. “Nice new … steamer-thingy. Mom? Umm, veg might be a bit soft. Sorry. What am I like, aye?” I added my best false laugh.
“Oh for pity’s sake, don’t join them in the ‘Ridicule Luna game,’ please. If I could still puke, I’d do so … in your head.”
I appreciated the sentiment, if not the image, but I ignored her all the same. Right then I needed to concentrate and play the game.
Then Jack joined us from his office, his hot, damp breath slipped over my cheek like serpent’s tongue while he slipped past me, to take his seat at the garden table. He picked up The Daily Mail newspaper and snapped it open.
Helen filled his glass with chilled, white wine, “Your favourite Chardonnay, Darling.”
Jack grunted his thanks and feigned absorption in the news. He never read our local newspaper and once said, “It’s filled with inferior tripe.” I write for it, so of course it is.
He flicked each page without interest, gazed up towards the sun then over to me, and grinned as if he’d just got the joke.
I rushed out to place the vegetables on the patio table, then hurried to return indoors and awaited the usual onslaught of criticism.
Not quite Albino, my skin would argue otherwise. Of course, my folks knew about this particular issue. Too difficult for a child to hide blisters from one’s parents, but hosting shadows, seeing the dead, reading energy and auras, and even psychic touch could all be disguised, denied, or otherwise explained. For example, a common autistic trait is to dislike touch so that diagnosis appeased people for a while. It explained my weirdness to my nannies, teachers or neighbours. Later came OCD, along with a multitude of other mental health related labels, for which I still pop pills that make my head feel clamped. Thank flip for free private medical cover. The amount of tests and treatment I received over the years would have cost a wedge. I often wondered if any of it actually helped me. All I knew was they had locked me up multiple times already; they’d throw away the key if they knew the true extent of my freakdom.
Flo wouldn’t rest, “Lu. Let’s go for ice cream. Or to the pub—Merlot’s calling.”
“I’ll be back inside within fifteen minutes. Go away, Flo. This is gonna hurt.” Because of learned memories and our close psychic connection, or something like that, Flo can feel what I feel to some extent. Flo gets it, I don’t. This means she feels my pain along with my pleasure, unless she returns to the Shadow Lands while I go through whatever sensation it is. “I’ll be as quick as poss. Promise.” I filled my lungs with sun-drenched air and tried not to gag, “Please leave.”
After a long pause, Jack answered my long gone rhetorical question, “A rat, Luna. That’s what you’re like.” He snickered into his newspaper. For a clever guy, he had zero wit.
I scoffed as if it didn’t hurt. But ‘Rat,’ (their ‘pet-name’ for me) pissed me off enough to fire fake bravery through my veins. “Hilarious Dad. Well, I’ll eat inside. Can’t stay long, got work to do.” Their silence made my stomach knot and spine curve forward. They ignored me while Jack shook his head, visible over his paper. I held my breath and awaited their reaction. That bravery vanished as soon as it appeared.
“Please. Please, let them be kind.”
“That’d be a first,” said Flo.
I sighed. Helen had to assert control over someone. She knew how the sun would torture me.
I said, “I’ll err … be a human-sized blister otherwise.” They still didn’t respond, so I took a chance, walked to the table, picked up my plate and moved to escape inside.
Helen stood, “Luna, get back here.” She pointed at my allocated seat, “Sit down and eat. It’s not that hot out today, and you’re wearing the usual horrendous throat to ankle outfit. They’re supposed to protect your skin aren’t they?”
Jack gripped the paper with both hands, which shook with each gasp between muffled guffaws. Helen adored every morsel of Jack’s attention. It offered a way to compete with whichever lover he’d taken up with this time.
“But it’s not covering everything.”
Helen ignored me and seized the moment to win more Brownie points. “Excuses Luna. We will not sit inside on a lovely day like this, just in case you feel a little … discomfort.”
I continued to stand in the doorway, my back to Helen, face turned towards her, the torturous sun on my cheek.
“You always have to spoil it for everyone, don’t you?” Helen sat erect. “What about your poor mother? Huh? I want to use my new patio furniture, and every week I slave over the stove to prepare a nutritious meal …”
Flo jeered, “Aunty Bessie does the cooking, Luv. You press buttons on the microwave.”
“I told you to scat,” I reminded Flo.
“Yeah, well, looks like we’re both gonna fry.”
Helen grandstanded, “And what do you do? You’re here five minutes before you ruin the vegetables and insist on sitting away from us. Where’re your manners?” She watched for Jack’s reaction. Her spiteful eyes shone at his amusement.
Throw me a goddamn crumb!
I had to get on with it. No point arguing. It would only elongate the nightmare, “Sorry, I—”
“Don’t you dare apologise.”
“Stop stuttering,” Helen stood. “You’re not normal, Luna. I’ve always said so, haven’t I, Jack?” She didn’t know quite how right she was, but I still wanted to make her ears whistle with a swift upside-your-head.
Jack joined in, though soon tired of the farce, “Yep, you have, Darling.” Jack lowered his paper and asked me, “Why do you always have to upset your mother? It’s not on.” He smirked at Helen. She sighed, tragically in love with an inconstant man. “We raised you better than this.” He slammed down his folded newspaper next to his plate of slop.
“Oh, I thought boarding school staff and a long succession of nannies raised her. Scumbag.” Flo corrected him.
“Shouldn’t we invite you round anymore?” Jack tried not to sigh or laugh, or both.
Helen, who hadn’t noticed Jack’s interest flag, still buzzed on his original amusement, “Can’t we enjoy one day a week together?” She threw down one of her new tea towels and pulled out her chair, then slouched on it like a stroppy child and smirked at me sideways on, flicking her hair like I dared to waste her valuable time.
“Go on,” goaded Flo. “Tell ‘em to do-one!” I could feel her lungs strain as she held her breath.
“You’re selfish,” Jack sniped.
Flo stifled a scream—I could feel her about to pop, “If I had a body I’d kick parental bootie till it bled over that horrific table.”
The image, a tad psychotic, “Okay, now you’re scary. Go away.”
Good ole, Flo. I loved her. I wanted to curse at them, but more than anything, I wanted to ask them why. Of course, that always meant a cattle-class ticket to their special hospital.
Just do whatever it takes.
Flo ignored or forgot that Jack had friends everywhere, and Helen knew my every move, so there was no choice but to placate them.
“See, Helen, she never listens to us.” Jack crossed the short distance between us while I screwed up my face. He knocked on my head hard with his knuckles—a common occurrence. “Hello in there?” he sniggered, “Who did you pay for that degree, again? Is there anything of use in here?” He knocked my head again, “Knock, knock!” They both snorted.
“Leave!” demanded Flo. I swallowed my need to lash out. An ugly lump of repression ground away at my nervous system like water against a rock.
“Huh?” Jack hovered over me from his 6’4” stance. I got my height from him, if little else. There are bullies and the bullied. I knew my place in the hierarchy.
Determined not to cry in front of them, I examined my pigeon-toed feet.
I am that lonesome toe, sticking out of a tattered sock.
A soup of hurt and anger bubbled in my tummy, mixed with stomach acid. It lurked, ready to overflow my gullet at any moment. They always made me feel like a four-year-old. Flo once said my only psychological problem was loving my abusers. It’s crazy, but tragically, not unusual.
Just do it.
The time came for the greatest show on Earth, so I raised my head and tried to find something to focus on, other than their satisfied grins. “I’m sorry.” It broke my heart. “I should think of your feelings. I’ll grow up one day … Promise.”
Jack smiled and returned to his seat to enjoy the show.
And then, as if my brain turned to jelly, “When I make you proud, you’ll—”
“Proud? Of you?” Jack mocked. They glanced at one another, gratified smirks in place.
“Oh Christ,” sighed Flo. “You poured petrol on their flames.” She was right—again.
Pissed at my hopeless honesty under pressure, I concentrated on a piece of lint on Jack’s shoulder, “Yes.”
“What-ev-er,” Helen mocked.
Jack enjoyed a large swig of Chardonnay and looked at his watch while Helen’s focus remained on me.
Jack said, “You should have more achievable goals. We love you even if you are … you.”
They both laughed, yet the word love on my dad’s lips in relation to me, still gave me a kick. A stab of hope.
“Baby steps, Luna.” Helen smirked at Jack, “Remember what your shrink said.” They both giggled.
I deserved it. I left myself wide-open. I just had to sit with them beneath the sun, take a few mouthfuls of vomitus cuisine, then get the hell away from them. I’d placated them, enough. For one week.
My silent screams firmly tethered, I ignored another shriek from Flo. Then I sucked in a lungful of air and paused in front of them. After a tentative step towards the table, I asked, “I’m to sit here I take it?”
The cruel globe appeared harmless robed in brilliant blue, but like a poisonous lacquer, its rays coated the skin of my hands, parts of my face, and passed through fine hairs onto my scalp. I pulled my sunglasses down from my head for all the good they’d do.
Helen sat beneath the shade of the house with Jack. I had no choice but to sit under direct sunlight, which reflected off the conservatory windows and aimed right at me—as she’d intended. Morsels of the meal slipped like shit down a waste-pipe while I roasted. Although Helen flashed a sly smile whenever I whimpered, Jack seemed as keen to ditch this horror show as me.
Flo screamed inside my mind, but I smiled. I could do that.
When I’d finished enough of the slop to suffice, I walked inside and once out of sight, then ran to the kitchen to splash my burns with cold water, then to the loo to throw up.
Helen sniggered in the garden behind me.
Jack sniped, “Enough. That’s enough, Helen.”
Dad had less of an appetite for cruelty than my mom, which always offered me a morsel of hope.
Somehow, I’d convinced myself that my only chance at true autonomy came linked to family and connection. It’s all to do with how the mind of the abused child works, or so says Flo. Don’t we all want to be loved, especially by those who are supposed to love us? If not, then damn it, we need to know why, or long to change their minds, their hearts. Because there is freedom in that, or at least control.
Dreams of success therefore excited me. I hoped to secure their pride through achievements at work, in the hopes that it might one day translate to genuine love and acceptance. You gotta be in it to win it, right?
Unfortunately, I worked for our local newspaper, and the thought of a job at any of the nationals made me convulse. Still, I told myself success could come locally if I just landed the right story. I just needed to find something juicy.
2 My Loitering Stranger
After leaving Jack and Helen in their garden, I climbed into Rusty (my car) and pushed the experience from my mind. Then I coughed on withheld tears before shrugging my shoulders, and blew my nose.
About to twist the key in the ignition, my skin shivered as though stroked with a feather and continued throughout the short car ride through Snape—my little corner in North Yorkshire—on my way to my hair appointment with Sybil.
Once parked, I left Rusty and sensed a kind of prod in the back of my neck. I spun around to find a tall, dark figure, familiar somehow, who stared at me from across the road. Weird how he appeared familiar yet wore a deep hood that obscured his face with shade. Built like a house, he stooped beneath a florist’s awning.
His energy had to reach out quite a distance to have that kind of prod, yet I detected no energy path. “Do you see him, Flo?”
A random gust of wind cooled my cheek and distracted me, “Um …” I rubbed my neck and said, “A guy. Huge. He’s. Well, he was …” I searched the surroundings. I pointed towards the florist, “… right over there.” but he’d gone. “Damn, he moved. No energy, but he’s under my skin, it’s creepy.”
“Maybe he’s bought you flowers?” Flo said, looking at the florist through my eyes. “Either way, get outta the sun.”
I sheltered beneath the salon’s canopy and searched my chaotic mind for a memory to place the familiar presence. One of Helen’s many spies? Someone I met at university, a pub, a library, or through work? Then, a familiar aroma rode in on the breeze to tease me, redolent of toffee, and clammy hands held onto pennies. It floated beneath my nose and I wanted to follow it to its source.
After a few moments, a scene came into my head—like the visions I received from touch—for interpretation. As if I’d been pulled through the passageways of my mind, it displayed in show-reel format, the details of a lost dream, trapped in my murky subconscious.
In the vision, the loitering stranger sat undaunted, unguarded, unhindered. His beefy fingers threaded, his hands, rested on the round table between us, outside what appeared to be my favourite café: The Pantry.
Flo and I frequented there often, to people-watch, drink copious amounts of coffee, and enjoy the splendour of the night.
It rained softly, and because we often walked on such nights, the vision became all too real. Anomalous, yet the familiarity of him unnerved me most. I knew I had been this close to him before—closer perhaps. But when, how?
The sounds and movements of those around us slowed down, as though submerged beneath deep water, but I could still breathe. His face hid beneath a heavy hood. He remained elusive, yet calmed instinctively. Well, until the atmosphere changed. Then my skin prickled, somehow super-charged.
Long white fingers of light passed from within him, to pierce my chest. Soon, the normal jangle and banter of a sundown crowd silenced, sucked out like fat with a liposuction rod. Their chatter stolen, the people around us froze like bronzes. Rain clouds dipped to shoulder level, and misted up the atmosphere while cooling us.
Despite his control over our environment, and me, I remained calm, and believed he posed no threat. He held my gloved hand in his. I enjoyed the unhindered intimacy, the delicate kisses of the soft rain, and the peace that came with submergence within the clouds. I couldn’t read his emotions or see his aura, which was both an annoyance and a relief. His continued silence unsettled, yet moved me.
I searched through shadows for his facial features, but found nothing to carry into reality. No sly, tell tale identifiers. He’d blocked them all somehow, with garments, shade, light.
Then he passed on information, but I couldn’t access the details as I might have in the actual dream I’d forgotten. The memory of his deep, indulgent voice made little sense to me once awake, its tribal harmonies built waves of desire, not a checklist of information.
I needed to understand him, though all I gleaned was that I must travel to another place, investigate, perhaps even fight, before all hope was lost. Like a phony psychic reading, it gave me vague ideas and no specifics—little of any worth to work with.
A scorching discomfort startled and pulled me from the vision. I couldn’t hold on long enough to interpret the memory of my dream further, but when I opened my eyes and saw the hooded man again, I knew him to be the guy from my dream.
But that’s ridiculous.
Then the dream slipped—detail by elusive detail—from my consciousness, back to its subliminal home. I blinked and he vanished. The absence of connection to the dark figure left an uncomfortable space inside me, but the sensation of his light sitting deep within me, lingered to make me smile.
I sighed, then squealed at the pain of the sun’s heat on my cheek, and then at Flo’s rebuke, “Shade it or lose it, sister.”
I edged further under cover, “Okay—Loud much?”
“Well, dah! You’re frying, stop daydreaming.”
I scanned the perimeter, pulled my hat down and leaned further beneath the shelter of Scissor Hands Hair Salon.
Flo sensed my unease, “That guy’s freaked you out.”
“I’m fine, he’s gone now, anyway.”
“Listen, we both know he’s just another no-mark spy for the evil gits we just left giggling at your blisters.” Flo had a way with words.
Fretting over dreams and useless longings, I said, “You’re right. I know you’re right.” The obvious answer to the who and why of the loitering hulk swooped in and washed away all intrigue of dreams and visions, replacing them with anger and frustration. I kicked a nearby Coke can.
Can’t I even go to the damn hairdresser’s without some loser being paid to follow me? Am I so desperate to kid myself he’s the guy in my dreams? Idiot.
I shouted, “You’re scum, you know that?” and hoped he heard me.
Unlike the other spies in my folks’ employ who at least tried to stay hidden, this guy stood in plain sight. The arrogance!
I shivered, wondered if he got-off on intimidation. Anger rode each platelet through the surf of my bloodstream. “Damn him, and them.”
Flo said, “Hey now. Chill sister, I could be wrong. He might fancy the bones of you and be too nervous to approach the purrdy lady.”
I admit a tiny spike of excitement shot up my spine at meeting another, hopefully attractive, oddball thrilled me—a kindred spirit who’d get me and foibles was a dream of the highest order. But, then I remembered my rat-like features and his stalker tendencies.
“He’s a stalker and has something to hide.”
“Err. You have stuff to hide too.” My life resembled a bad B-movie at the best of times, Flo was right. I had no right to judge another for being peculiar. But then, I didn’t stalk people for a living. Well, not unless I had to. For a story.
Anyway, I dumped the fragile fantasy and bowed to the more plausible theory that my folks had hired another babysitter, and anger quashed all naïve, amorous perceptions.
“No shit, Sherlock.” I removed my sun hat and smoothed back fine, greasy hair. “I never saw his face beneath that huge hood. Weirdo! Must be a real pig to wear that in this weather.”
Flo laughed, “Your fashion sense is nothing to brag about.”
“I know, I know.” I glared at my reflection in the window. The sun had made my cheeks rosy, or at least it appeared that way in the glass. “Perhaps he shares my issues with the sun, hence the hood?”
“Let’s see what I can pick up,” suggested my nosey telepathic friend.
I panicked. Did I really want to eradicate the fantasy completely?
“No thanks. I’ll be late for Sybil, and even in the shade, it’s hot. What kind of sicko spies for a living, anyway?” To fantasise about what lay beneath his long, hooded coat was one thing, but to expose my friend to it? Quite another! “There’s no telling what you might pick up from his head, or anyone else’s round here. I can smell a handful of winos, for a start. Stand here too long, I’ll pick up their vibes and get pissed, myself.” I giggled. “We both know I prefer to enjoy the drink before the intoxication, thanks. So nope, it’s not safe. I’ll keep my eye out, and I’ll confront the scumbag if he continues to loiter.”
In truth, I knew I’d never confront him; my life sucked, but I preferred it to death. And he looked scary. Anyway, when any of my folks’ spies lost their cover, they always sent a replacement. I doubted this goon would last much longer.
“Fine.” Flo sighed. “Get inside. The shade’s disappearing fast.”
3 The Story Of Estelle Whelan
The tiny shop consisted of two sinks and four workstations. Grubby mustard coloured, worn linoleum covered the floor. The walls hadn’t seen a fresh coat of paint in years, but they kept it cleaner than a lot of high-end salons. All of which, I found impersonal and too pricey for my needs. At Scissor Hands Hair Salon, I received all I needed for half the price, and didn’t get asked awkward questions by trendy teenagers, like, “Off out on a date tonight, luv?” And “Where’d you go on your holidays this year?” I mean, please. Like I needed that. Just cut my bloody hair.
Three stylists and one colourist took turns on reception. Sybil cut my hair well, and although she liked to chat, she was just as comfortable in silence. This made me feel at ease with her.
A haircut had once been a nightmare, but not since I’d found Sybil. Or rather, since she found me in our local hair salon, offering maternity cover for someone who never came back. Sybil has contact dermatitis and wears gloves to do everything: superb for me of course, but not so great for her poor hands.
She’s attractive with captivating eyes; pale grey and wide. I guessed her to be in her mid-forties, though I wasn’t great with ages. Compact and strong, she always wore dark structured clothes—a stark contrast to her sunny disposition.
I removed my favourite Aviator sunglasses, put my coat and sun hat on the peg, and waved at Sybil, informing her I’d arrived. Then I took a seat and picked up a hair magazine. I wanted to remove my gloves to get some air to the burns, but I dared not risk it in public. Many people visited the shop, the potential for trauma made me cringe.
Sybil walked her customer to the reception desk to pay. I moved to her station, took a seat, then smiled at a blonde woman getting her roots done. She didn’t reciprocate. I’d grown used to people’s reaction to my clown-like appearance. Patchy-white sunblock, baggy all-in-ones draped over bones, a rattish face, gappy teeth and long fine hair did not attract smiles. I shrugged.
Wonder if I’d look better blonde? A blonde rat? Ugh!
Still, my burns itched and longed for air, so I removed my gloves, regardless. I’ll just have to be careful. The relief gave me tingles.
“Odd that she never asks about your gloves, Lu,” commented Flo. “Must seem weird.”
I smiled, “I reckon she thinks I’m OCD like everyone else.” Nothing like a ready-made cover story, even if it’s a lie. Who could take the truth? I’m not sure I understood it myself. “Anyway, she wears them, too.”
My boss once asked why I wore gloves all the time, at the end of my first week working at the paper. I couldn’t very well tell him or anyone else, the truth, so I utilised sarcasm, “Dah? I’ll give you one guess,” I’d said.
He’d leapt to the same conclusion as most people, “Ah, right. I see.” His pity for me oozed from his chest like syrup.
I seized the opportunity to make my point and scat. “Yes, so I’d rather not have to explain myself if you don’t mind.” Without waiting for his reply, I tossed my hair, left his office, and strolled to the loo. Any exhilaration about getting away with it soon passed while I cowered in a cubicle for ten minutes to calm down.
My work colleagues didn’t ask me, but they came up with ‘clean-freak,’ ‘germ warrior’ and ‘mental case,’ between them.
It’s a privilege to work with such an enlightened group of educated people. I imagine.
That was until my boss told them I had OCD and if anyone discriminated against me again, they’d be warned, reported, then fired. Now, everyone is too scared to even look at me in case I deem it ‘discriminatory,’ which suits me fine. As long as I get to do my job, who needs all the complications of office politics? Not me.
Although, it must be nice to have friends at work?
Sybil interrupted my thoughts when her warm smile filled the mirror in front of me, “Shall we do something different this time?” I saw her apply fresh rubber gloves and relaxed. A fabulous habit all hairdressers should develop, in my humble opinion. “Try a bob. You’d suit a bob with those cheek bones,” Sybil mused aloud and brushed my hair.
“You suggest the same thing every visit, and as always, the answer is no; I like it long, and anyway, it grows too quick. I’d be here every week.”
“Wouldn’t be a bad thing, would it?” Sybil smiled, with an inherent omniscience.
“You on commission?” I winked. She smiled again. “I can’t afford you more than once a month.” Sybil wrapped the robe around me and secured it—as always—beneath my own collar. But when it touched my hands I gasped and winced, and snatched my hands out from beneath the robe.
Sybil glared at my blisters.
Thankful to be able to blame my pain on the burns instead of touch, I exhaled.
Aw, so sorry, Lu. Can I get you a cold compress or something?”
“Err. No thanks.” Close. “I’ll be fine.” I clenched my jaw. Last thing I needed on top of blisters was some cloth and its history to invade me.
“Your fingers are like seared sausages, and there’s more on your forehead.” She scrutinised me a little too closely. “Oh, and your poor cheek and nose. What happened to you?” Genuine concern shone from her like lilac snow.
Flo sighed, “Gotta love Sybil.”
“Yep, but what do I tell her?”
I sighed, “Sybil, it’s a long and tedious story.” She combed out my hair, careful not to disturb the sore spots on my scalp. “Oh. Ouch.” She couldn’t help the tangles, though.
Her head tilted and eyebrows rose, and Sybil said, “Well, we have a while if you’d like to elaborate. You’re my last client on this fine Sunday.”
“Umm.” What to say? “I have a sun allergy.” I fidgeted in my chair. My throat tightened when a strong waft of ammonia came by, “Ahem,” I coughed. The noxious smell came from a woman’s rollers, who sat in the station next to mine.
Sybil’s nose wrinkled, “Sorry, we don’t get much call for permanent waves these days. Nasty pong, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “Yeah.”
The woman next to me gave us a filthy stare. Sybil pretended not to notice but changed the subject. “So, you were telling me about those burns.”
Damn! “That’s right.” I fiddled with my gloves, and wished I’d kept the bloody things on. “You gotta love England with its almost guaranteed clouds and rain all year round. But who knew the weather forecast would be so wrong?” Tightened skin stretched further still over my knuckles, and my blisters wept when I curled them into loose fists—a ridiculous attempt to conceal them. I winced, knowing it’d hurt to replace my gloves now. I longed to bin each pair and never wear gloves again, but it’s surprising how much we touch stuff each day. I needed them.
“So why go out in it? And why did it affect you so severely?”
It fell off my tongue, “Bad skin, worse parents.” I shrugged. “Can we leave it at that?” It seemed like the ultimate betrayal to tell anyone about Jack and Helen, but I considered it a quick rip of a plaster. I’d have lied, but I’m really not good at lying. Never mastered the art.
Although, I suppose I lie all the time to Jack and Helen?
Sybil’s eyes met mine in the reflection and turned liquid black for a moment. I’d never seen anything like it. Her body trembled slightly, and she dropped the large, toothed comb from her hand. She retrieved it from the floor, rinsed it at the nearest sink, and returned to me with some semblance of normality.
Flo spotted this overreaction. “See that? And those eyes.”
Sybil seemed lost in thought when she washed my hair in yummy lemon soap a few minutes later. Once back at her station, I said, “It’s okay, you know. I stopped by a chemist on the way here … picked up anti-acid for the worse digestive system in the world, and more sunblock, which I plaster on.” Sybil kept her frown. “I have more in my bag, and antiseptic. I’ll be fine, Sybil.” I glimpsed my reflection and noticed how streaky and white the cream had made my face. I never checked the mirror to see if I’d blended it in, as usual.
The loitering stranger saw me burned, streaky skinned and greasy haired. Perfect.
I scoffed, “Well, I look like a clown, but I’ll be fine.” Sybil’s face found some composure when I let out a nervous giggle to alleviate the mood.
Sybil said, “I’m … sorry. That’s all.” Her emotions rolled from anger into compassion, and penetrated the back of me like a too-firm massage. I wanted to change the subject to further relieve the general awkwardness.
I described what I wanted—a trim, as always. Flo groaned, “Have a bob. You’re a hippy.”
“I’m not a bloody hippy.”
Sybil combed my hair, parted it down the centre, unaware of the conversation playing out inside my head.
Flo offered her usual dose of sarcasm, “Ha, nah, you’re a total ‘Rock-chic.” She giggled.
I was not amused but compromised, “Okay, Sybil. Cut a few extra inches off today. I feel brave.” She offered me a half-smile and a headshake.
The motion of having my hair done soothed me towards a slumber and made me yawn.
“Tired?” asked Sybil.
Rose, the colourist, sniggered at Sybil’s innocent question while removing the foil tint from her customer’s hair. I’d known Rose for a lot longer than Sybil. Flo had idly read her mind once or twice and told me she drank too much cider and enjoyed rough sex play with many men. Each to their own. “Don’t get much sleep, do ya, Lu?”
“I wish.” I replied, still feeling guilty for knowing her intimate details. Bad Flo!
Sybil tilted her head, “Insomnia too?”
I grumbled at my own weirdness and picked my flaky nails, “I’m a night-owl.”
Sybil grew a mammoth smile, just as she forgot herself and yanked on my knotted hair.
She flashed perfect white teeth.
“What the hell’s she so pleased about?” Flo became intrigued. “Please let me snoop.”
“Get over it, give the woman her privacy.” I admit to a sense of intrigue, but it still seemed wrong to snoop on this lovely lady. Plus, what if she does things in private I’d rather not know?
“Me too, love.” Sybil said, “Fancy us having that in common.”
We smiled at each other in our reflection, “She’s adorable. Best-buddy material.”
“Hey …” Flo offered. “The dead do get jealous, you know.”
Sybil never talked about herself, which bothered me because, well I’m nosey and she was interesting. “So you can’t sleep. What else? Tell me more about you, Sybil.”
She laughed, “What could you possibly want to know about an old girl like me?” Her eyes smiled, her head shook, but agreeable vibrations told me she had a story.
“There’s something odd about this one. Let me investigate.”
I lost concentration along with my patience, “No, and shh!”
“That’s rude, young lady!”
“So is reading other people’s thoughts; give her a break. And please. Zip it!”
“Didn’t mind me snooping on Rose.”
“You’d done it before I could stop you. Sybil’s different. She’s a good sort.”
“Oh come on,” I nudged Sybil to continue, “I know an ‘old girl’ like you’ll have something juicy to share. You can change the names if that helps?” We both laughed. Her dark, wavy hair bounced with her shoulders. “Either way, I’ll not talk about my tedious existence any longer. It’s gotta be someone else’s turn.” I peered back at her through the mirror, and tried to ignore Flo’s persistent natter.
She gawped at the ceiling and chewed her lower lip while she combed out my hair for the umpteenth time. “Okay, head down.” After she moved my chin to my chest, she sliced at my hair until it fell around me like autumn leaves. “Well, I don’t know if you’ll be interested in this or not, but there is the story of Estelle Whelan of St. Ives, Cornwall. It was all over the news about her kidnapping over 20 years ago, now. Only a toddler at the time.” She paused to look at nothing, misty eyed. “Not just that, but they say Esta’s home is now haunted by her family. Another family who witnessed it say the Whelans’ were last seen burning to death in their house, the very day Esta disappeared.” She looked at me, searching my reaction. “You should go get yourself a spooky story.”
Poor girl. Poor family.
Though fascinated, I knew it would be difficult to investigate a decades old cold case. “I feel for them, honestly I do. But spooky stories don’t make it into decent newspapers.” Though tragic—and tragedy sells—it wasn’t even of local interest to my paper, so it didn’t sound like a useful lead. But at least the conversation had moved away from me. “Sorry, but please go on.”
“Ah, but this story’s different. They never found Esta, I mean Estelle and no bodies of her family were ever found in the ruins of the fire.” Sybil added voice effects and raised her eyebrows for more impact in the best ‘storyteller’ fashion and reeled me in at each stage. “It’s a genuine mystery. The police found no clues and closed the case that same year. They’re next to useless, I tell you.”
Flo piped up, “She for real? Ghosts? We need a support group to deal with this kind of ignorance. As if we don’t have enough—”
“—I’d love to tell her about the Shadow Lands for you,” I scoffed, “… but I’d rather not get locked up.”
Flo giggled, “Can you imagine her reaction if you did though, the look on her face?”
Then I made a schoolgirl error: I sniggered with Flo and upset a confused Sybil, “This isn’t funny. I’m serious. Poor lass is still out there somewhere without her family, or dead in an unmarked grave.” Her frustration registered high on my emotional scale.
“Sorry, Sybil. I got … distracted. And well, the story is shocking, but it’s such an old case. It’d be tough to get answers. And well, I don’t believe in ghosts.”
Flo said, “Plus, it wouldn’t be easy to find any new evidence after twenty years.”
“Nothing worth doing is, right? And if a newspaper didn’t want it, I could always sell the story to a paranormal website. In fact, I could look into that for extra resources if they pay more than biscuits. I have access to a lot of paranormal stories, let’s face it.”
“Doubtful they pay anything, Lu. Who reads them anyway? They’re all fake photos, digital enhancement, bored people, or desperate people trying to hold onto their past.”
Flo’s resistance was quickly doing my head in.
Sybil dribbled annoyance at my clear lack of attention, but tried to hold it back bless her, “Like I said, this isn’t about ghosts.” She held my stare and spoke slowly. “It’s about a little girl named Estelle and her poor family.”
Flo sniggered, “That told you!” Then she continued on her soapbox, “Anyway, no Shadow worth their salt would hang out at a burnt-out wreck. We do have standards. People should not assume we’re all poltergeists desperate for opportunities to go ‘Boo!’ Tsk. Move away from the clichés, people.”
I sighed, “Yeah Flo, and in the real world where you don’t exist.”
“Oh, I exist, all right. You’d be lost if I didn’t.”
Sometimes, the volume dials didn’t work. I held my breath, picked at my blisters, and struggled to concentrate on the story. Sybil interrupted my brain squeeze, “Luna. Are you still with me?” she grumbled.
“Yes, of course. I’m all ears.”
Sybil sighed, “Well, okay then.”
In my effort to focus on one conversation at a time, I tuned into Sybil a bit too much. Sybil must have known the girl’s family or something. I sensed her distress. This was personal for her, and I’d made fun.
“I’m a total bitch.”
“You have your moments.” Flo sniggered.
I couldn’t deal with all the additional emotion pouring into me from Sybil—too private, too real. I concentrated on a purple hairspray can in front of me. I read and repeated: For normal hair and normal hold. For normal hair and normal hold. The effort required made my head ache. That didn’t include trying to ignore two Shadows in the corner who bitched about me, agreeing with Flo’s Shadow Rights rants.
Did they die in their rollers? This is my life. Oh to be normal.
Thankfully, Sybil’s emotional flow stopped. I didn’t care how and inhaled with relief as Sybil continued, “Trouble started when gossip spread like it does, soon enough even the Whelans’ friends called them witches along with everyone else. Lies poisoned their neighbours’ minds, suggesting they butchered a young woman in cold blood as a sacrifice to the Devil, or some such nonsense. Some believe a group of vigilantes took little Esta before setting the family alight.”
I considered my angle for the story, “I can see the headline Sybil, ‘The Whelan Tragedy: Revenge or retribution?’”
Sybil shrugged, “If you believed the gossip, perhaps. We never did. I know good people, and the Whelans’ are good people.”
Sybil looked away, “What?”
“You said the Whelans’ are good people? Don’t you mean were?”
Sybil concentrated on my haircut, “Oh, yes. Anyway, few talk of them now. It happened so long ago, but the locals still fear the ghosts who haunt the house.” She sniggered, “Keeps them away from their home, I suppose.” Sybil shook her head and spritzed my hair with blow-dry spray before drying.
Another client entered the shop and let in a familiar fragrance from outside.
Umm, I know that spice.
“So?” Flo had stepped off her soapbox. “What do you think of her little story?”
“Sybil’s right. The story’s not about the ghosts, it’s about Esta and her family. Where is she? Who took her, to where, for what reason? If her family burned in the house, where did their bodies go? More I think of it, more compelled I am to investigate.”
“Yeah, I could question the community, go see the house, see what I can dig up—so to speak. Coming?”
Flo snorted, “Not gonna get you the Pulitzer though, is it?”
I refused to be deterred by Flo’s negativity. The local fete wouldn’t get me anything either, while this could be big.
One Sunday lunch soon, Jack might read my story in the nationals. I won’t be a stupid rat then, will I? We’ll finally be toasting my success …
Sybil smiled and blow-dried my hair. “Bless ‘em,” she laughed, relaxed, even jovial.
I laughed with her, “I’m intrigued. I admit.”
Sybil’s eyebrows raised, “Think your editor would approve?” Wide-eyed and eager, she turned off the hairdryer and stared straight into my reflected eyes.
No pressure then?
“Could be.” She needs me to do this for her. “I‘ll check it out, but I can’t promise anything, and I’ll need more data to get started.”
I’d love to help her if I can. But twenty years is a long time.
A nosy Flo said, “I doubt you’ll learn any more than folks already know. Besides, if you go in there ’n touch stuff, that kind of trauma could kill you.”
“Don’t read my thoughts, Biatch. Anyway, I’ll be as cautious with this story as with everything else. And I’ll have you to nag and whine at me, and to wake me up if it all goes pear-shaped and I pass out.”
“Hey missy. You’re cruisin for a bruisin.”
I silently giggled, which feels like tiny wings flapping in my tummy.
When pressed for further details, Sybil revealed that Esta’s former home and spooky house in question—number twelve, Royal Place—had been deserted since the fire. That’s a long time for prime real estate to stay empty.
“Bet I know what really happened …” I imagined Flo throwing one hand in the air, like at school. “The murdered young woman left a mother and father without a child, and the vigilantes stole Esta to redress the balance. Then, they killed her parents for revenge, then removed the bodies before the emergency services could do so. Easy.”
I mused along with Flo, “Not a bad idea. But I assume the police investigated them first. They must have been prime suspects. And they couldn’t have gotten to the bodies before the emergency services put the fire out … without burning. Afterwards, I think they’d have noticed the neighbours stealing the bodies from right under their noses.”
“Oh, yeah? Didn’t Sybil suggest police incompetence though? Who knows who they investigated? Maybe the police sympathised with the vigilantes and engineered a cover up?”
“Maybe. That’s what makes this exciting. There are many possibilities.”
I pulled myself away from Flo’s theories, “Fascinating stuff, Sybil.” I had to ask, “Are you related to the Whelans?”
I winced, prepared for a powerful flow of sorrow, but nothing. She broke eye contact and fussed my hair, “As close as anyone can be without sharing a bloodline. Anything else?”
“Close, but not related. It’d be brilliant to find them all for her, wouldn’t it, Flo? Give her some peace.” My feet itched to set off. Apart from helping Sybil, Jack and Helen would have to respect someone who closed a twenty-year-old kidnap and murder case. That’s nearly my lifetime.
Sybil dried my hair while Flo corrupted my daydreams with another dose of reason, “Don’t aim for stars, only to lick shit off the pavement. They’re called cold cases for a reason. All you have are the subjective ramblings of a sweet, if odd, hairdresser. My advice? Next week, tell her you looked into it, but no banana. Leave it at that. Oh, and your folks aren’t normal, so don’t expect normal reactions from them.”
Regardless, I insisted, “We’re going. Final. Imagine if I could find one of them alive, or even dead in the Shadow Lands—they’d have a bloody good story to tell.” Still fantasising, “This could be the story I’ve dreamt of, Flo.”
Flo sighed. “Doubt it’ll yield any rewards. Well, not the rewards you’re hoping for, but I agree it sounds better than the local fete,” chuckled Flo.
“I’ll get Zoe on that gig. It’s good training.” I knew how much the apprentice would hate me for it, but she’d do the same in my shoes. Besides, I’d had to do my fair share of them before, and she avoided me the same as everyone else, so no loss.
I paid at the reception desk while Sybil wrote down relevant details. After replacing my outdoor accessories, I struggled with the gloves, although the air had already worked its magic on my wounds. Besides, my head buzzed enough to mask any pain.
Sybil’s head tilted, “So. You’ll go soon?”
My tummy buzzed like a hive of bees, “Oh, yes.”
“When? Today? You must visit the house, no one else will help you. Err, it’ll take the whole day to get to St. Ives by car, and of course, you’ll want directions for when you arrive.” She scribbled down the details of a B&B, along with directions to number 12 Royal Place, onto a yellow telephone-message pad. She tore it off and handed it to me, then flashed her teeth and sparkly eyes again.
“Here. It’s cheap and cheerful,” she said.
I accepted Sybil’s notes, “Sounds like my kind of place.”
Then, she did something weird. She took my gloved hand in her gloved hand and pulled me closer to her, our eyes locked. Stiff silence passed between us, along with a wordless message I couldn’t decipher as she said, “See you very soon.” Stifled, I pulled away. I feared I’d upset her again, but she grinned while I searched with my fingers for the door handle behind me, “Thanks. If I find news of those friends of yours before my next trim, I’ll be in touch.” I grasped the handle and opened the door. Air blew in, drenched in vile sunshine, but I enjoyed the sense of space.
Sybil gave me a Mona Lisa smile. I turned to close the door while Sybil pulled a mobile phone from her apron pocket. She pressed one button, then placed it to her ear, grinning.
Didn’t strike me as the speed-dial type.
To top off the weirdness of my day, my stranger once more loitered across the road from the salon with intent—though what intent remained unclear. He watched me, his arms folded, leant casually against the florist’s wall, and no doubt wore a wicked smile beneath the hood of his long wax coat.
So, it was your delicious fragrance that floated into the hair salon. Yum. What brand is that? And why should that even matter under the circumstances?
Aroused by his obscurity, his privacy, his mystery, I had to stop myself from sprinting over to him.
What do you want, you big, bad man, you?
I shook away lustful thoughts, annoyed at myself. It was so unlike me. “Okay, now there’s another reason I’m glad to be going all the way to Cornwall: To get rid of him for a few days.”
“Oh, flip.” Flo appraised him, “He’s like a tank, wonder how big his gun is?” Then she giggled.
“Rude.” I tried not to smile. “And this isn’t funny, he’s blatantly stalking us.”