This short story was originally published by Feminartsy.
The nightmare-fiend of Mania havoc-breathing passed swiftly to the rock-walled river Styx where dwell the winged Erinyes, they which still visit with torments overweening men.
We’re making dinner, still packing as we do. The house is a maze of cardboard boxes, open suitcases, and half-finished packets of food. Eric is swapping his time between disassembling the kitchen and flipping a scarily sizzling pan of sautéing onions, garlic and chilli that makes my eyes sting. We’re having stir-fry for dinner – a last-minute attempt to balance out the endless going-away parties. It’s been a non-stop fortnight of alcohol, chips, and decadent desserts. I feel bloated and ill. Unsure if I even want dinner. We hear a noise from downstairs and, my hands comparatively free, I go to check it out.
She’s standing at the mirror that’s been placed next to the bookshelf to make the narrow hallway look bigger. I haven’t seen her for a while. But she’s still only 11 years old. Her hair is still thin and blonde, but it doesn’t shine in the sunlight anymore. Her skin is more grey than white these days, and you can see the blue veins popping at her temples. They blend into the jagged scar that runs along the edge of her cowlick, all the way down past her throat until it disappears beneath her muddied t-shirt. It’s a grotesque frame for her bruised and blackened eyes, her battered jaw and nose. Her face makes me sad. We used to look the same. Before he broke her.
It’s a memory I’ve been trying to purge. Even at the time I’d detached myself from the scene as I watched him destroy her. I should have run for help. I should have thrown a rock. I should have screamed blue murder. I should have told on him the next day. I wanted to kill him, I really did. I had spent years burning with rage every time I thought about that night, every time I thought about the pain and suffering that he deserved – that all like him deserved. I wanted them to pay for their crimes in blood and blinding pain, in screams and tearing flesh. But I was young. And I was scared. And I did nothing.
She hates me for that. She’s never said so, but I know that it’s true. She still feels a sense of responsibility for me, though. She still wants to keep me safe from the boys – all the boys who have ever lived – as though it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. But her love and her protection are corrupted by her hate. She doesn’t want them to hurt me: she wants to be the one to do it.
I’d noticed her standing there in the reflection of the shiny metal fridge that night when I’d found Adam, his throat a gaping wound, lying in the middle of the kitchen, already cold. Her mask-like face was an enigma: sad but smiling.
‘Don’t be too upset,’ she had whispered to me, the curtains behind her fluttering like wings in the breeze, ‘It’s the only way to keep you safe.’
That was the second time it had happened. But the first time – when Brett was left half-decapitated on the front lawn – I hadn’t seen her. Or at least I hadn’t admitted to myself that I had. I had convinced myself that it was a freak accident. Watching the blood oozing from Adam’s neck, I had to admit that it was her doing. I got scared. I took the furthest flight I could afford. I ran away.
But she’s followed.
‘What are you doing here?’ I ask her.
‘I’m here to make sure you’re safe,’ she tells me.
‘You don’t need to protect me anymore,’ I assure her. ‘These aren’t bad people – I want them in my life.’
She smiles sympathetically at me, ‘I wouldn’t want to be responsible for letting you get hurt.’
‘Please don’t do this,’ I beg. ‘I was young – I didn’t know any better. I’m sorry you got hurt, but now I want to try to live a normal life.’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’ She looks genuinely confused, ‘I just want to keep you safe. You’re not safe with boys around.’
‘Kim!’ Eric is calling me from upstairs. I hear something drop to the ground and shatter and I explain I have to leave.
As I turn to go, she stops me, ‘He sounds angry, and you go running. I’ve told you to keep away from them.’ After a pause she adds, ‘Someone will get hurt.’
I look up at the ceiling, at the upside-down to the point where I know Eric is standing. I can hear him moving, can feel the warmth of his body and his cooking even from down here. I’m scared for him. And I’m scared for me. I try to convince her to go. I try showing her that she is not needed anymore. I try telling her that he doesn’t – won’t – hurt me. I try to explain that they’re not all the same. That I’m not like her. That she was unlucky. That she’s been blinded by fear and pain and hate. I want to shake her, scream at her, hit her, bite her, strangle her. But she’s had enough of that.
‘Kim!’ Eric’s call is more urgent now. Turning away from her I fly up the stairs, taking them two at a time, and emerge into the kitchen, pale and sweating. Ignoring Eric, I immediately check the lock on the kitchen door: I keep everything locked these days. Eric watches me complete the checks. He’s confused, but he knows I don’t like questions. He pretends not to notice, leaves me space to explain if I want to.
He’s put the chilli-garlic sauce to the side and is re-oiling the pan in preparation for the beef and chicken strips.
‘I dropped a jar,’ he tells me, ‘can you clean it up? Sorry about the mess.’
Tiptoeing carefully in my socks, I grab the dustpan and brush and start shovelling the dangerous shards into the bin. Just as I’m finishing we hear another noise so I head back downstairs. As I descend, I hear Eric throw the meat into the boiling oil. A sharp, deafening sizzle. He’s coughing against the steam.
She’s still there, waiting for me.
‘Just release me so that we can get this over with as soon as possible,’ she says. ‘I know you feel what I feel. I know the anger and hatred you keep locked away, hidden. It will kill you if you don’t let it out – let me out. Go on. Admit what you are.’
I shake my head defiantly. I try to keep my voice calm as blood-spattered images of Brett and Adam flash through my mind.
‘I’m not letting you do this. Not this time.’
She starts laughing. ‘You want to pretend you’re not like me? You’re exactly like me.’
I sit on the floor, whispering to myself that she’s wrong. I don’t want this to happen again.
From upstairs, I can hear the meat sizzling, the stovetop exhaust fan going at full speed to disperse the smoke: Eric at least is oblivious to her presence. But then she starts yelling that there will be blood spilt – that she’s not leaving before absolution, before payment for what was done to her – and I know what’s going to happen.
‘ERIC!’ my voice cries, ‘I NEED YOU!’ But it’s not me calling. Without looking up, I know it’s her, luring him down to the scene. I hear Eric’s feet stop moving – a pause as he listens, checking for the sound of his name.
I notice something wet in my left hand and glance down to see a trickle of blood running from my thumb to my wrist. I look up at her through the mirror. The shadows from the dim lights dance across her face. The glow disfigures her – tricks of the light. At one point her face morphs into a sharpened beak; a grotesque protrusion that could tear flesh. I blink and the illusion is gone. It’s just her, her face though battered and broken is normal, familiar. There’s a slight up-turn on the corners of her mouth; a snarled smile. A strange, distorted glee. Her eyes pierce my own as I unclasp my fist. In the muddied moonlight I see in my palm the glint of a stolen glass shard from the dropped jar.
‘ERIC!’ That voice again. My heart is thumping – I pray that he won’t hear.
Upstairs, the meat stops sizzling and the fan is switched off.
‘ERIC!’ the voice screams, ‘PLEASE HELP ME!’
I hear Eric’s feet on the wooden stairs, thumping down towards me to see what’s wrong.
He rushes to where I’m curled on the floor but I slide back, rise to my feet and face him, my back to the girl, my eyes filling with tears.
‘It’s okay,’ he tells me – mistaking my fear for fright, ‘Just tell me what’s wrong and I’ll take care of it.’
I hear her high-pitched shriek behind me, hear it mingle with the screams in front. Then everything goes blank.
When I return to the shard slicing and thumping its way through its no longer screaming target, I force myself to face the scene, to stand and watch until Eric’s last shuddering, sacrificial breath.
I can feel her elation from behind me. Can feel it echoed in the blood pumping through my veins. And in that moment I know that it will never be different. That she will always be with me, a part of me. That she will always be me. That the only way to stop her is to stop me.
Then, still holding the dripping shard in my hand, I close my eyes against the mad stabbing fury before me and turn – knowing how it must end – to the one waiting in the mirror behind me.