‘Aftertaste’ – Original Short Story by Gloria McNeely

*This story was inspired by a story from an episode of The Creep Dive podcast – though mine is based on fictional characters.*

She had to admit he was making an effort, but it would take more than a coloured table cloth and some candles to make up for the past year and a half of bullshit he’d put her through. The table was set for two. It was their barely used Ikea dining table, a gift from her parents for their wedding three years previously which had been used as many times, and now covered in a blood red table cloth that she had a suspicion had been dug out of the discarded Christmas decorations in the attic. He’d even laid a red napkin out on baby Frankie’s high chair, that he promptly ripped to pieces. They sat now at either end of the table, glancing regularly towards their son, hoping he would do something to break the fragile silence.

“Hey!” Mike said in his playful dad voice, causing a tightness in Tina’s chest. He tickled his son under his arms and giggled along with him. Frankie had taken none of her fair features and instead had his father’s dark hair and eyes. She touched her own hair, recently dyed and cut from her usual long blonde to a choppy red bob. A weak attempt at reinventing herself, and now she was right back where she’d started. She grabbed her wine glass and drained it in one go closing her eyes against the sting in the back of her throat. He was a good dad, had been since day one. Was she wrong to take Frankie from him these past months? To keep him away when the problems were between them?

Grace would say no with a little added venom. The steadfast best friend who’d taken her in when she had nowhere else to go. He did it to himself, she’d say. He hasn’t asked for his son, has he? Hasn’t insisted on seeing him? He’s a deadbeat. Looking at him now she couldn’t marry the word to the man playing with her son, their son, taking his chubby little arm between his lips and pretending to bite until Frankie couldn’t breathe from laughing so hard.

Mike caught her eye and she realised she was smiling at them both despite herself. Colour rose to her cheeks and she looked away, pretending to admire the candle sticks in the centre of the table. Those she hadn’t seen before. Mike sat back down and Frankie returned to mashing the leftover flakes of paper napkin in his pudgy little fists.

“I’m really glad you came tonight. Both of you.” Mike said. He grabbed the bottle of pinot noir from the middle of the table and walked around to refill her glass. As he gripped the stem of her glass she heard the soft clink of his wedding ring. “I just wanted to do something for you both you know. I’ve really been working on my cooking skills recently and wanted to make something from scratch. Something really special.” She took the generously filled glass from him, careful to keep her own left hand hidden on her lap, the shiny, white line on her ring finger hidden in the folds of her skirt.

“What are you making?” she asked.

He set the bottle down on her side, a glint in his eye. “That’s a surprise. But I really hope you like. It would mean the world to me if you liked it.” There was more than just a glint in his eye now, there was a fervour, a searching look as he stood over her, scrutinizing her face. She raised the glass to her lips, afraid that he might try to kiss her, and worried because she was afraid. Was she here to try and work this out or not? Absolutely not, came Grace’s stern voice in her mind.

Frankie squealed from his seat, restless. Getting locked in his high chair also meant getting food, that was the compromise, and there was none that he could see. This snapped Mike out of his reverie. “The king has spoken!” he said, suddenly joyful. “I’ll grab the starter!” He hurried off to the kitchen and Tina tried to share a raised eyebrow with her son who only smiled quizzically at her. “Starter? That’s a little over the top isn’t it?” Frankie replied by kicking his feet loudly on the underside of the table.

She brought her other hand onto the rough red table top, the worn skin on her ring finger shining in the candlelight. Would he be mad if he saw it? Grace certainly would have been if she’d left the flat wearing it that morning. She’d told her she was going to visit her mothee and that hadn’t been a lie, she just hadn’t added the part about visiting her estranged cheating husband as well. Grace would have talked her out of it, and she was beginning to think that she shouldn’t of have let her.

Sometimes Tina wished she wasn’t so easily swayed, pulled and pushed from all sides. She needed to start making up her own mind, for Frankie’s sake. He deserved a strong mother.

Over the sound of the romantic playlist he’d put on the speakers, a bland Top 40 list, she could hear pots boiling over, the hob sizzling, and the occasional muffled curse word. What had gotten into him all of a sudden? He had never been a cook, the few times he’d even attempted to help her had been disastrous and now she wasn’t allowed to step foot inside the kitchen. Did he think this would make up for all the late-night internet chats? The pictures of all those women she’d found on his laptop? The thought made her sick and she gulped down more wine to ease her stomach. He’d promised that had stopped. That it wasn’t what she thought it was in the first place. To date, he had never even admitted to cheating on her.

And now he refused explain anything until after they ate.

That was the main reason she was sitting at his table now. She would tolerate the rock-hard vegetables and the burned meat if he would only tell her why. That magical word ‘closure’ would surely plug up the hole in her chest, or at least shave down the ragged edges. Grace said it didn’t matter why, that he was going to lie no matter what, but it mattered to Tina. And if he hadn’t been cheating, if it was something else like he said, well… that was another mystery she wanted solved.

By the time Mike kicked the kitchen door open again, a heavy tray in his hands, Frankie was full on fussing. Tina tried to distract him with a toy from his changing bag but he was on the verge of a meltdown.

“All right, wee man, all right.” Mike said amiably, pushing the tray onto the table. There were two soup bowls with what looked like chunky coloured water in them and a small plate of hors d’oeuvres. Mike presented Tina with her ‘soup’ and pulled his chair around so he could try Frankie with the small burnt bread he’s spread with some kind of pink paste. It looked like salmon.

“He really doesn’t like fish,” Tina interrupted, remembering the projectile vomit he’d had after her mother tried him on salmon slices.

“It’s not fish,” he told her simply, but Frankie didn’t seem to believe him. He strained against his seat, held his head as far away as he could get. Mike even tried the old airplane trick to get him to open his mouth, but it did no good. “Come on, little man. Just one bite. That’s all.”

Tina started to hover over the edge of her seat. They never forced Frankie. He ate what he liked and that was that, but she could tell by the strain in Mike’s voice that he was starting to lose his temper. He’d eat something else, why did it matter so much?

Finally at the end of his tether, the pink paste smeared on his ruddy cheek, Frankie started to really bawl, reaching out his hands for his mother. “Ok, I think he’s had enough,” she said, pulling him from his seat.

“I just wanted him to try some. He should try new things!” Mike stood up with her, the hunk of smeared bread still in his hand.

She pulled her son’s head onto her shoulder, his wail lowered to a hurt whimper now. “If he doesn’t want it, he doesn’t want it.” She stared at him in disbelief, her turn to scrutinize his face. His cheeks were red from what she thought was the heat of the kitchen but she wasn’t so sure anymore. There was something like excitement in his every movement, what she’d assumed was nervous energy at the thought of making things right, getting his family back again, now it had her feeling cold. Had he been drinking as much wine as she had?

Needing an excuse to clear her head for a moment, she grabbed the changing bag by her chair. “I better go change him anyway.”

Mike threw down the uneaten paste. “Why don’t you change him down here, I’ll put down a towel or something.” He scanned the room for something suitable.

Tina already had her foot on the stairs. “It’s fine. I’ll take him to the bathroom. I need to go myself as well.” She kept her tone even but she watched him try and come up with an excuse, anything to get her to stay downstairs. “Is there something wrong with the bathroom?” She hadn’t seen it in months, and though she was sure there was no way he’d taken so much as an air freshener to it in that time, she couldn’t imagine why he wouldn’t want her in there.

An image filled her mind of the magazine rack suddenly filled with pornos, or worse, another woman sitting on the edge of the bath in lingerie filing her nails, just waiting for the frigid wife to leave. Tina swallowed hard.

“No. Of course not. Just hurry back or your soup will get cold.” He smiled, but it was strained. She hurried up the stairs, suddenly feeling like this whole thing was a mistake. She should have just stayed with Grace.

On the upstairs landing she hesitated. She could hear him downstairs, slurping at his own cooking, but upstairs she heard nothing. To her left she saw the dark doorway of the master bedroom, their master bedroom, and clothes slung across the floor. Her heart beat as she pushed the bathroom door open and turned on the light. It illuminated nothing more offensive than the dirty streaks on the closed shower curtain and an overflowing clothes basket. She breathed a sigh of relief, scolding herself for being so paranoid.

But it was the paranoia that had led her to open up his laptop, to finally get to the truth. She considered this as she laid Frankie down on the changing table they had set up at the end of the bath. Tina had never liked the idea of having dirty nappies in bedrooms or living rooms; the bathroom was the only place for them. He was a lot less fussy now, ready to start his usual kicking game as soon as she unclasped the Velcro straps. She wrestled with him absentmindedly as she considered where she was.

Mike had begun to grow distant not long after Frankie was born. He’d stay later and later at work, eventually not coming home until after she’d fallen asleep. And when he was there, he was always on his computer, stopping only to do minimal duty as a father, but never to spend any time with her. Tina had convinced herself early on that she was losing it, imagining that his interest was waning. She’d managed to keep control of herself for a couple of months until one night, unable to sleep, she found him asleep on the couch, the laptop open on the coffee table in front of him.

She remembered that hurt, that deep down pain, worse than being in labour with Frankie at seeing those pictures. They were innocent enough, the ones on the screen, but they were still other women. Worse, some of them were women she knew, had known, some of them her friends. She hadn’t known then whether he was talking to all of them or if he’d just taken to saving their pictures from social media, but it made her nauseous regardless.

As did that message that popped up as she stood there, bent over his sleeping face lit up a sickly blue in the light of the screen. Tasty, huh?

Blinded by tears she’d still managed to pack her bags that night. He woke in the morning to an empty house. Eventually found her at Grace’s yelling from the front garden that he had never cheated on her, that it was all a mistake, but Grace had shut him down quickly, threatening to call the Guards. She hadn’t seen the laptop downstairs tonight. Did he really think he could explain this all away?

With Frankie clean and dry again, she let him sit on the bathroom floor for a minute while she washed her hands at the sink, trying to ignore the urge to give the place a good scrub. When she turned around, Frankie had something shiny in his hand. Her heart fluttered, thinking he’d found a razor blade or something, but as she dropped to examine it, she found his pudgy fingers wrapped tightly around a bracelet.

It was silver, a charm bracelet.

The threat passing did nothing to steady her heartbeat though. She’d seen this bracelet before, had bought the tiny bird charm that now hung over her son’s thumb. It was Grace’s.

She pulled it from his grasp, replacing it quickly with his favourite blanket from the changing bag. He didn’t seem to notice. With shaking legs, she brought him back downstairs.

She didn’t know what to do. Part of her wanted to run right then before he noticed, like she’d done three months ago, but she would only be going back to Grace’s. It couldn’t be true. Grace and Mike? Grace hated him. Unless she just wanted to keep you apart so she could have him. No, that was crazy, that couldn’t be happening.

With Frankie back in his high chair her fingers found her wine glass again. She drained it, emptying the rest of the bottle in as well. The heat in her belly gave her strength. She wasn’t running, not again. She was going to stay here, until he told her everything she wanted to know. Every fucking thing she deserved to know.

With liquid courage running through her veins she made to charge the kitchen right there and then, but the sound of a woman’s voice stopped her. She thought for a moment that she would pass out until she heard the words, “… once the onions are sautéed, you will need the crushed garlic from earlier to rub into the tenderised meat…” She laughed out loud, holding a hand to her mouth to stop from going hysterical. He was watching a cooking tutorial.

Before she could build up the momentum again to confront him, her phone buzzed in her bag. Clumsy now from the alcohol, she pulled it out to find she had three missed calls behind the one that was still incoming. She frowned down at the number, not recognizing it. With a quick glance at the closed kitchen door, and Frankie still content with his blanket, she slipped out the front door to take it. From the porch she could still see the high chair through the glass.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Tina, It’s Trevor.”

Her hand slapped her forehead a little too hard. “Trevor! I didn’t recognize the number. How are you?” Trevor was her friend from college, a computer nerd who now got paid for his skills. She hadn’t spoken to him in so long, if you didn’t count the email she’d sent him the day after… It was all coming back to her now.

“I’m good, I’m good,” he said slowly. She could feel it coming like a tidal wave, his calm tone was the tide slipping out to sea only to come rushing back in to drown her.

“I forgot I emailed you,” was all she could think to say.

He sighed. “Yeah. I’m sorry it took so long to get back to you. I wasn’t even going to do this, but Grace called me and… I felt like I needed to do something to help.” Grace. Did she have her hand in everything? Tina didn’t know how to feel about that name anymore, about the cold metal she still clutched in her hand. What the hell was going on here?

“Just tell me.”

He hesitated still, she could hear him clicking and typing. “I don’t really know what to tell you Tina. I don’t think you’d believe me if it was me just talking.” She glanced through the door to make sure he wasn’t coming. Frankie was still by himself wobbling from side to side, dancing to the music. “I’m going to email you what I have, the most important points. Can you call me back after you’ve had a look? I’m sure you’ll have some questions.” He sounded like he’d just told her someone had died.

And really someone had. The man she thought she’d married was dead.

She was sure she would have questions too. She agreed, hanging up and stepping back into the stiflingly warm house. She took her seat in front of her cold watery soup that looked to have unpeeled parsnip floating in it, her fingers aching; one hand grasping the phone, the other her evidence.

The phone was silent. Just as the angry thought rose in her mind that she should call Grace, she should ask her what the hell she was doing, he was back, this time with a silver domed serving tray, the kind you’d see in a fancy hotel. Tina froze in her chair, staring at the man she married, smiling over his shiny new apron like a cheesy Christmas card.

His voice was brimming with excitement. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want anything to burn and I figure you wouldn’t really want the soup anyway. It’s the main course that’s important!” He shook off the oven gloves he had on, laying them to the side. She watched as he shuffled around, grabbing her untouched soup and the plate of hors d’oeuvres from Frankie who was looking at the big shiny dome in wonder. She couldn’t bring herself to speak, couldn’t even bring herself to fake a smile but he didn’t seem to notice.

He placed a plastic kids plate on the table in front of Frankie; it was his favourite Spiderman one. This got him hopping but it was too far away to reach it. He set two adult sized ones out in front of him so he could serve on them, taking the biggest knife she had ever seen in his hands. His eyes were electric, like a magician about to do his big reveal. Then his face fell, his brow furrowed for a second.

“Hang on! I should do the veg first. It’s not a proper meal without the sides, just give me two minutes.” He held his hands up like he was commanding a dog to stay and disappeared back into the kitchen. Tina swayed in her seat, her empty stomach filled with rich wine and dread. She stared down at her phone again, Frankie making mewling noises in front of her, trying to get to his favourite hero. It always took ages for emails to get through to her phone.

The screen lit up.

One new mail.

Pots were being scraped in the kitchen. Contented humming had now replaced the frustrated cursing. Tina’s mind went blank as her fingers opened the screen, practiced movements leading her to her inbox.

He’d carefully labelled everything for her, making it clear that he’d been working on this for a while. Apparently getting into Mike’s computer had been harder than he expected, harder than it should have been for someone who was nowhere near tech savvy, but Trevor had reason to believe someone had helped him beef up his security.

The pictures were what drew her eye first, her heart thudding painfully as she scanned the faces. They all seemed to be from Facebook, some familiar, some not. Grace was there, but so was Tina, only adding to her confusion. Were these women he had slept with, wanted to sleep with? Women he was trying to strike up relationships with? Was he simply a pervert? Among the innocent profile pictures and the bordering on not so innocent beach holiday ones, were scattered porn pics. ‘Fetish’ pictures Trevor called them. Women tied with ropes, handcuffed, twisted up in bath tubs and covered in marks.

Frankie, having given up on reaching his plate, started babbling to himself, the background noise to Tina’s nightmare. There were documents labelled as ‘Short Stories’, the only attachments she actually knew about. He’d told her he was taking an online creative writing course, just for fun. Of course, she’d asked to read his work, but he’d stone walled her, assured her that he was working on some horror stories, that she wouldn’t like them. He was right about one thing. Fear kept her from opening them.

But the pictures of women weren’t the only pictures Trevor had sent her. There were also screen shots of conversations, but from what she could tell they weren’t with any women. She couldn’t make heads nor tails of all the acronyms and innuendos but she knew it made her skin want to crawl off her flesh. Along the bottom of the email was a list of sites, sites that he advised her not to look for, that she wouldn’t be able to find them anyway. Sites with names that made her head spin like ‘The Hungry Man’s Kitchen’, ‘The Forbidden Meat Locker’, and ‘Cannibal Cafe’.

Tasty, huh?

She was numb. An empty husk barely able to draw in breath. The chain of Grace’s bracelet rattled in her hand. Her eyes flickered to the silver dome in the centre of the table. Shaking, phone left untouched beside her wine, she reached for it. Realising something was about to be revealed, Frankie got excited, letting out a little high-pitched squeal as he watched her hand get closer and closer. She stopped just inches away, her fingers inching to the side instead where a single, white blonde hair was pinched between the dish and the lid. Slowly she pulled it free, holding it up to the light of the candle. Frankie was silent now, as though he could feel the tension in his mother’s blood.

The humming from the kitchen grew louder and her hand jerked, dropping the hair on top of the candle. It sizzled, disintegrating along the hair, leaving the hint of that horrid smell behind.

It took a moment for her to realise her breathing had become ragged. She was sweating.

Tasty, huh?

Wouldn’t you rather go out for dinner? Meet at a coffee shop? She heard herself asking him on the phone, trying anything to get out of coming back to the scene of the crime where her heart had been broken. No, he’d said firmly, too firmly, I want to cook for you. I’ll tell you everything after dinner. 

She found herself standing in the hallway, leaned down to press a kiss to the top of her baby’s soft head, wishing she hadn’t drunk so much wine that her head wasn’t so fuzzy. She moved into the dark hallway to the kitchen, only realising by the light in her hand that she had her phone with her too. The bracelet cut into her palm, the feeling there but distant, no pain yet. Something metallic hit the floor and she heard him mumbling to himself as he cleaned it up.

Grace’s bracelet. She had to know.

She pulled up the last dialled number and hit send. This was all a bad dream, a nightmare. It was just the wine confusing her, making her read funny. Once she sobered up a bit and got home Trevor would explain that it had all been a joke, that she’d gotten it all turned about and –

Muffled vibrations reached her. The high bell notes of Grace’s ringtone. She was the only person Tina knew who still used one.

All the commotion in the kitchen cut off abruptly. There was nothing but the phone ringing for a few seconds before she heard shuffling and thudding. She pressed her hand still gripped around the phone to the door and pushed, just enough to open up an inch, enough to see him at the back door, the coat hooks there. He scrambled around his own jacket, rifling through the pockets. She could only see his back but she saw him pull something out and stop. He stared at it for another few seconds, his neck straightening up, but not turning.

In her hand the screen went blank as the call ended.

Mike dusted his hands off on his apron and busied himself at the kitchen counter again, carefully arranging potatoes, carrots, and sauces into dishes. A heavy wooden chopping board beside him dripped something thick and red down the cabinet door.

Tasty, huh? 

Tina stumbled back to Frankie, gripped him tightly from behind and kissed his fuzzy head until he squirmed. Bemused and starting to really get hungry now Frankie watched her put her grown up toy on the table, the one he wasn’t allowed to touch. He grumbled as she took more of her bad juice. He wanted juice too. He wanted his Spiderman plate to play with. Why was no one feeding him?

The big shiny sharp thing rose up off the table in front of him, beside the big ball where the food was, that much he knew. He saw Mummy’s soft hands holding it, hoped she was going to use it to cut up his dinner, but she didn’t. She kissed him one more time on his nose, making him smile and shake his head and she was gone. He couldn’t turn around far enough in his chair to watch where she went, but he heard Daddy’s surprised voice. They must be getting dinner together.

Frankie jumped as the music in the speakers got louder. He couldn’t hear the voices anymore just the music. He forgot about the hunger in his belly. There was a baby in the big shiny dome, and he was dancing just like Frankie.

‘Rest for the Wicked’ – Original Short Story by Gloria McNeely

*This story was first drafted in a creative writing class headed by Dave Rudden. I was given the prompt of ‘Fairytale’ and this (in a much more raw form) is what appeared in my mind. I hope you enjoy.*

She stole through the darkness of the trees, her long cloak, edged with lace, catching here and there on twisted roots and jagged thorns. But she was too eager to notice. She emerged from the edge of the trees to a thin back alley behind the row of houses, a sickly streetlight casting a weak glow halfway along. She lifted the ruined fence at her usual spot, more cautious now of her frayed edges. Like a black cat with an unlucky mouse caught between its teeth she loped across the dusty alleyway with her offering, striding confidently through the back-garden gate of a house that wasn’t her own, and laying down the carefully wrapped gift on the back step. The glittered wrapping paper shone in the glow from the kitchen.

Inside was the skull of a new born deer. Avril would love it.

She made it back through the trees that separated their estates without issue. Pausing in her back garden, she pulled back her long hood to gaze up at the windows of her own home, a home that recently had felt less and less inviting to her. Most of the windows were lit up. She saw her mother’s shadow scurry through her parents’ bedroom, could see her father shuffling around the kitchen looking for something, his shirt untucked, giving him an uncharacteristically messy look.

Her heavy boots flattened the close-cropped grass, where her father had been spending most of his energy the past few months. Before she could slide the glass door open, he caught sight of her through it and jumped, dropping the glass of water he was holding, glass shattering on the tiles.

“Jesus, Tabitha! You scared the life out of me!” he said breathlessly, clutching at the tie hanging loose around his collar.

“Sorry!” she winced as the door slid closed with a bang behind her. Dropping her bag on the counter, she stooped to gather the scattered pieces.

“Don’t use your hands,” he said worriedly, reaching under the sink for the dustpan and brush. “I don’t want you to cut yourself.” Tabitha dropped the larger pieces she’d already gathered into the dustpan and let him sweep up the rest. They were both still hunkered down on the floor when her mother swept into the room in a long maroon coloured dress, her hair pulled into a fancy updo that Tabitha had never seen before. She looked so different without her glasses on, younger somehow.

“Brian, have you found it yet?” she called too loud, her tone frustrated. Her heels crunched on scattered shards that they’d missed. “What’s this?”

“The grim reaper here gave me a heart attack. Dropped a glass,” her dad explained. Tabitha made a face and caught sight of her reflection in the kitchen window. Dressed all in black, cloak inches off the floor only due to her new platform boots with all the shiny silver buckles, she could see how he was startled at least. She didn’t mention the actual sickle shaped stud earrings hidden behind her long dark hair – that would have been a little too on the nose.

“It’s called fashion Dad. You wouldn’t understand,” she teased. But he wasn’t paying attention anymore. He was stooped down sweeping in front of her mother’s hesitant feet. She moved back across the divide to the living room where the carpet would hide any missed pieces. While he was doing that, she began shifting the cushions of the couch.

“What did you lose?” Tabitha asked, already glancing around.

“Your father misplaced the car keys and if we don’t find them, we’ll be late for our reservation.” Her words were grunted as she balanced precariously on her knee across the arm of the couch to reach the other end. Tabitha looked at her father. His mouth tightened but he said nothing.

She pulled off her cumbersome cloak and laid it over her bag on the counter. Glass tinkled into the bin, cushions smacked back into place as she headed for the clothes basket in the utility room off the kitchen. It took her less than a minute to find her father’s trousers which her mother would have swept off the bathroom floor while he was in the shower. They were both too distracted by being annoyed at each other to think of it.

She slipped them into her father’s pocket and tucked his shirt halfway in as well. He looked at her startled and she raised an eyebrow. “I found them!” he called to her mother, giving her arm a squeeze as he turned, finishing the tucking himself.

“What?” her mother popped up from the couch, stray hairs flying from her carefully sculpted bun.

“Come on, Caroline. I’m waiting for you!” he feigned impatience at her startled look.

“Where were they?” He didn’t answer just grabbed his jacket from where it hung on the stairs and left the front door open as he left.

“Have a good night, Tabby cat.” he called, over his shoulder.

Still nonplussed, her mother hurried to Tabitha, who for a second thought she was going to offer a hug, but she was just grabbing her clutch bag from beside the fridge. “I left you some dinner in the oven okay? You just need to heat it up.” She moved to spin off like a beautiful twister but Tabitha caught her by the arm, tucking the stray hairs back into their moorings.

“Mum?” she asked, her tone light but serious.

“What?” she replied, already worried, her hands gripping Tabitha’s elbows.

“It’s date night. You’re supposed to enjoy it. Have fun with each other.” Their eyes met, understanding dawning. Her mum did pull her into an embrace then, the tension in her shoulders melting away.

“Thank you. I’ll try,” she whispered. She paused to squish her daughters face in her hands one last time with a worried look before leaving her with a warm lipstick mark on her cheek. They worried about her she new, and no doubt her and her new ‘fashion’ choices would be a topic of conversation over their starters. What was so bad about a little black lipstick? What was so offensive about a few dozen pentagrams? She really didn’t get it.

The front door slammed shut, the whirlwind of her parents leaving a silent vacuum behind. Tabitha breathed a sigh of relief. She often looked back on her childhood memories, wondering if this had happened when she was younger and she had just been oblivious. Now, at seventeen, it was impossible not to see the strains and the distance between them. They didn’t act like a couple anymore. Divorce didn’t scare her as much as it once had as a tiny kid wondering who’s house she would have to spend Christmas at, but she still didn’t want it for them if they could avoid it.

She pulled the oven open to find a plate piled high with her mother’s famous spaghetti and meatballs tucked in with a blanket of foil. Suddenly she was ravenous. When was the last time she’d eaten? She’d spent most of the day wrapping April’s present, etching good luck spells into the brittle bone; she couldn’t remember. She slid the plate out and unwrapped the foil – hungry enough to forego the oven for the microwave.

No sooner had she pressed start, the heavy meatballs spinning on their wheel dark red sauce beginning to bubble, than the doorbell rang out. She pulled the door of the microwave ajar, just in case she told herself, and went to answer the door. Had they lost their house key as well?

But it wasn’t her parents who stood under the porch light. A handsome man, early thirties at most, the type of man who went to the gym just for fun was standing with one foot on the step below him, enticing her with a crooked smile. It was Mr. Henley from down the street. The new neighbours.

“Hi?” she said, more of a question than a greeting.

“Tabitha, isn’t it?” he asked, reaching to shake her hand but thinking better of it at the last second. He shoved them in his pockets instead.

“Can I help you with something?” Her heart beat faster now, not because of his obvious good looks, but because he was a strange man who knew her name, an older man who would have seen the empty spot where her parent’s car normally sat. She glanced down the street and saw a scattering of porch lights on, television LEDs behind net curtains and took a breath to calm herself. This was type of street where a cry for help would not be ignore. But he was a neighbour too. They had good neighbours on this street if her mother was to be believed.

He kept his tone apologetic to match his expression. “I’m so sorry to call on you this late and with such short notice, but I was given your number when we moved in by Mrs. Jones at number twelve? She said you were the streets resident babysitter and I should call you anytime I needed someone to look after the kids. She gave a glowing recommendation.” Tabitha’s cheeks flushed. That had been the case, especially when Mr. Henley had moved his wife and two kids into the last house on the row. She’d made a tidy sum looking after the neighbourhood kids while their parents went to movies, dinners, and the occasional concerts, but the calls seemed to be thinning out since she’d started looking like one of the monsters they checked under the bed for.

She smiled awkwardly at him, holding the door tight to her side for support. “I do a lot of babysitting yes,” she told him. He gave a curt nod then whipped his head around as if he’d heard something. As he did, her eyes flickered to the line of his neck, his muscular shoulders – but they were held by the white collar of his shirt. He turned back to her too quickly, but she was sure she’d seen a drop of blood there, blooming across the stark white fibers. Had he cut himself shaving?

“I’m really sorry to do this, but it’s a bit of an emergency. My wife and I need to rush off but the kids are already in bed, they won’t be any trouble.” He was bouncing on the ball of his back foot now, eager to get away. Her appearance didn’t seem to bother him. “Could you come now? We’ll pay you double what your normal rate is. You’re not busy are you?” She opened her mouth to tell him no, to say that her parents wouldn’t want her to go, to say that she was really busy with school work, but the sharp look of desperation in his eyes cut her.

She’d watched them move in months ago. He was the handsome husband, his wife a porcelain doll. Avril had said she would’ve looked like a fifties pinup if she just had the pointy bra and the curls, and Tabitha hadn’t disagreed. She’d seen the children too, a little fair-haired girl and a white blonde boy, maybe seven and five years old at a guess. Avril couldn’t guess, she said they all looked the same to her, but it was easier when you were around kids a lot. They looked sweet, but so did cooking apples before you took a bite.

She shifted her weight away from the door. “No, I’m not busy. I’ll just grab my bag and I’ll be right down,” she told him. His hand curled into a fist and for a second and her heart stuttered in her chest, but he just held it up in the air in triumph.

“Thank you so much, we are so grateful for this!” he called over his shoulder as he hurried back to his house. She closed the door and gathered her things, wishing she’d got a better look at that mark on his collar. Maybe it wasn’t blood, maybe it was lipstick. She almost laughed at that thought. They wouldn’t be the first couple on the street to pay Tabitha so they could sneak off to a hotel room.

“You are so paranoid,” she said to herself as she grabbed her bag and cloak from the kitchen counter. She stopped to pack her laptop and notebook – spellbook – before she left but paused in the hallway. The scent of garlic and tomato, just beginning to warm, wafted from the open microwave, the dome of tin foil still upturned on the stove like an open flower. She went back for it. Normally she had free reign over the refrigerator in any house she stayed in, part of the perks of babysitting, but nothing was as good as her mother’s meatballs.  

She stood on the outside of her closed front door, key just twisting in the lock, wondering whether she should call her parents and tell them. The street was quiet but not silent. The sound of cars off on the main road still reached her. There was dance music coming from the open upstairs window of number six, flashing lights to match. There were people here, people she knew, people she could trust in a pinch. There was no reason for her to worry and no reason for her to worry her parents either. Let them have their date night. They needed it.  

She pulled the hood up on her cloak. The full moon peeked out from the clouds above her, making her feel safer as she walked. All she needed was a light to guide her and a cloak to shield her. She wished Avril was there to get a picture of her.

Mr. Henley’s house had high hedges, overgrown from the last occupant leaving and something he clearly hadn’t got around to trimming yet, no doubt potent fuel for the gossip mill. She rounded the ragged and reaching branches and found his car idling in the driveway, the brake lights giving a red glow to the living room window. The back-passenger seat was open, a large bag slumped across the backseat. The front door of the house was open too.

As she stood there staring, the emptiness in her stomach turning to worried butterflies, he appeared in the light of the hallway, hurrying down the driveway with his wife in his arms. “Is she all right?” Tabitha asked, alarmed. He didn’t answer as he bent to heave her onto the backseat of the car. Wide eyed, Tabitha couldn’t unsee the snow-white colour of her skin, the red kitchen towel pressed to her face with a shaking hand. There was more than just a spot on his collar now.

“She’ll be fine. We shouldn’t be long.” He grunted as he slammed her door shut and slipped into the driver’s seat. “I’ll have your money when we get back,” he called through the window, but she was too startled to pay attention to him. She was still looking at the frail form of his wife laid out on the back seat. She was propped against the bag, barely enough strength to keep her head up, but she had her hand stretched out towards Tabitha, her glassy eyes telling her she had something important to say. But her husband was in a hurry to leave, pulling out of the drive just as the strength finally failed in the hand that clenched the towel.

Her mouth hung open, blood still dripping down her chest from the ragged tear that had once been her tongue.

The car sped off up the street, no head visible in the back seat anymore. Tabitha’s hands shook on her plate, rattling the loose foil around the dinner she wasn’t so excited about anymore. In a daze she turned back to the house, the front door still open, an ordinary hall with an ordinary light. No ominous red to light up the face of it anymore. The hedge snatched at her as she stumbled past as though to keep her there, to stop her from crossing the threshold. Somewhere an owl cooed softly.  

She hadn’t seen it. It was a mistake, a trick of the imagination.  

She listened for tell-tale signs of little feet or whispered voices but the dark landing at the top of the stairs showed nothing. Her skin felt too warm, her fingers crinkling on the tinfoil in her hands. Something was off and she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Dropping her bag on the living room couch among the myriad adorned couch cushions, she headed straight for the kitchen. Everywhere she looked there was sparkling glass and polished marble. She could have fixed her makeup in the mirrored shine of the toaster but she wasn’t bothered by her smudged lipstick right now.

Her mind was swimming. Her phone buzzed in her bag, making her realise as she hurried to answer it, that they hadn’t left a number for her to contact them on in an emergency – they were too distracted by their own. “Hey, thank you so much for the present! I love it! Where did you get it?” Avril chattered excitedly. Tabitha shook her head to get her thoughts straight. She wasn’t feeling faint yet but she was prone to it if she let her blood sugar get low. She made a beeline straight for the microwave.

“Ah, I have my ways. Don’t worry, it was ethically sourced,” she said, her tone flat, emotionless, her mind frozen elsewhere.

“What’s wrong?” Avril asked, always in tune with her moods.

“Ah,” Tabitha uncovered her dinner and slipped it into the gleaming microwave. She watched it revolve behind the glass, tried not to see it as the back-passenger window of a car. “I’m not at home right now…” she started. Avril listened with rapt attention as she tried to get the story straight in her own mind. They’d both ogled over Mr. Henley even as their attentions turned to boys with dyed hair and eyeliner, envied his beautiful wife, their lovely house. Too perfect, Avril had said. She didn’t mention the injury she thought she saw, unable to form the words with her own tongue.

Tabitha finished her story and leaned back on the counter, chewing at her chipped nails. “I don’t know what happened, but I don’t like it. It feels weird here.”

Avril let out a breath that crackled through her end of the line. “This is crazy Tabs, I think you should make some excuse and leave. Get out of there.”

“How can I? They didn’t even leave a number for me to call if the kids need something!” She threw up her free hand in exasperation, half turning back to the microwave but she stopped. Something in her peripherals caught her attention, something darker than the sparkling white tiles on the kitchen floor.

Just like her own house, the kitchen led onto sliding glass doors and a back garden out there in the dark, the woods standing guard at the bottom. They had their utility room in the same spot beside the glass doors, and right now the off-white door was closed. But spreading out from the bottom, through the crack between door and floor, was a dark stain. She was vaguely aware of Avril still buzzing in her ear. “Hang on Avril, there’s something here.”

Her stomach didn’t exist now, there was nothing but empty space in her middle, nothing to even make her feel sick. Slowly she pushed open the door, motion sensor lights reflecting dully off the already drying pool of blood. There was so much of it. Smeared and spread across the floor, like something had been dragged there. This is where he found her.

Her breath stopped and in the silence she heard a creak from upstairs. “Avril, I have to go. I just found a pool of blood in their laundry room; I have to clean it up before the kids see it.”

“Wait, what! You can’t clean it up! What if it wasn’t an accident? What if you’re cleaning up a crime scene?” She stopped; her pale face reflected in the sliding doors.

“It doesn’t matter,” she decided. “If the kids wake up and see this…” she shook her head. “Look, I’ll call you back in a minute.” Before she could protest further Tabitha ended the call. She glanced towards the hallway to make sure she was still alone before she bypassed the child locks on the cupboard under the sink and started pulling out bleach bottles. After some searching, she found a drawer full of kitchen towels – every one of them a glowing white.

She didn’t think she could stomach cleaning everything properly, but if she could just keep the utility door closed, they wouldn’t go in there. If they even did wake up. She used the towels to soak up most of it, found a pair of dainty Marigolds to protect her from the bleach, but she couldn’t stop the questions. Was she helping clean up after an abuser? She couldn’t be done for helping him, could she? She thought of his wide grey eyes, his big pleading hands. She didn’t even know if he was really taking her to the emergency room, maybe he was taking her… somewhere else.

The image of his wife lying helpless and bleeding in the back of the car, one trembling hand reaching out for help filled her mind.

She had only just tossed the last soiled towel into the sink when she heard another creak, this time from the hallway. Two little hands were curled around the banisters, two doleful eyes boring right into her.

“Where’s Daddy?” the little girl asked. She was just as pretty as her mother.

Tabitha pulled her hands behind her back and tried to cover the squeaking of the bloody gloves with her voice. “Hi there! My name’s Tabitha! Your Daddy had to drive your Mummy somewhere so they asked me to come stay with you for a little while. They should be back soon. Is that ok?” Her fingers grappled with the too tight gloves snapping back against her skin.

“Will you read us a story?” Her brother appeared beside her, his face squished between the banisters like he was trying to get his whole head through. His eyes were grey like his fathers. The little girl’s stare was unnervingly aware, watching Tabitha’s every move.

Tabitha smiled as warm as she could. That was something she could handle. “Sure. Just the one. You go pick it and I’ll be up in a second.” The little boy raced to get there first, crawling up the stairs on all fours like a spider, but his sister stopped, sniffing the air, her button nose twitching like a bunny.

“Why are you cleaning?” she asked.

A drop of liquid that she didn’t want to identify slipped inside the wrist of her glove, making her nose scrunch momentarily. “I just spilled something and I didn’t want to leave a mess. You go on up and get the book and I’ll be up in a second.” Hesitantly, she followed her brother up the stairs. The sounds of their fighting over which book to read drifted through the house, the springs crying out as they bounced on their beds in anticipation. Tabitha pulled the gloves off, her skin red and marked where it clamped on her wrists and cut off the blood flow. Quickly she washed her hands, being sure not to look to closely at what was swirling down the drain. Her stomach grumbled at the smell of warm, lovingly made meat seeping from the microwave. She hadn’t even heard it ding.

Her phone buzzed on the counter, a message from Avril. ‘You dead yet?’ she asked. Tabitha ignored it and headed upstairs, thinking that if she could just get the kids back to sleep, she could decide what to do then. Call the police or her parents, anyone else who could actually handle this.

On the way to the stairs she passed bloody fingerprints on the inside of the front door and wished to the gods that she hadn’t answered hers. 

The kids had already tucked themselves into their beds, still whisper arguing as she came in, but they hushed up quickly. Their room was split almost perfectly down the middle, half green on his and half lilac on hers. In contrast to the perfect order to the rest of the house there were stacks of clothes and toys all around, shoes piled up on either side of the built-in wardrobe at the back of the room. That, she would not be cleaning up.

She sat cross legged on the floor between their beds and grabbed the book they’d chosen off the table between them. She had always been a pro at reading bedtime stories, it was one of her favourite parts of looking after kids and something that every kid, no matter the background, loved hearing. Before long they had each slid onto their stomachs so they could see the illustrations.

For once she wasn’t keen on letting the kids see the pictures. This book didn’t look like a kids book at all; it looked like a collector’s item, something a literature professor would have on their shelf for reference. The cover was ancient and scuffed, a muddy green leather, the pages had the musty smell of a church on them, the unmistakable rough edges that a tiny rodent had gnawed. The story inside was Hansel and Gretel.

But soon she forgot about the children altogether, engrossed herself in the detailed illustrations. The drawings were ink artwork, cross hatched to hell, dark, shadowy, and creepy. As she turned each page, they grew more and more gruesome, the image of the witch in the ginger bread house setting her heart racing but the children were utterly still and silent, fascinated by them, and she seemed to have put herself under the same spell, reading the story more to herself than them in the end, her stomach forgetting to rumble, instead enthralled by the flames that licked the flesh of the witches bones.

Eventually Tabitha arrived at her grand finale with a customary flourish. “… and so, Hansel and Gretel, lived happily ever after.” Half-reluctantly, she closed it, her fingers caressing the cover. Avril would have loved to see the pictures in this book. From experience she expected the children to be sound asleep when she looked up. Instead, two sets of vivid eyes met hers.

“That was a great story, wasn’t it? Bedtime now!” She said with quiet excitement. She laid the book on the tiny table between their beds and stood up.

“That’s our favourite story,” the little boy said, snuggling down into his Paw Patrol blankets.

“Because we’re in it,” his sister agreed, her small hand reaching out to take the book and place it gently underneath her own princess covered pillow. Now that the story was over, her spell broken, Tabitha was starting to feel light headed. She turned out the light, leaving the door open just a crack. “Good-,” she hadn’t finished before the question started.

“Are there real gingerbread houses?”

“Is there one in our forest out back?”

“Do witches only eat children or do they eat sausages too?” On and on, without breath or pause. Tabitha tried to break in but they talked over the top of her, drowning out her voice, until her stomach rumbled louder than ever. She laid a hand across her belly, embarrassed and flustered. The two kids looked at each other.

“Do you think our parents would abandon us? Like in the story?” Her heart skipped a beat at this.  “Of course not,” she said, “They love you. It’s just a story.”

They looked at each other, eyes wide and worried. They stayed silent.

“Do you think they’d leave you alone like that?” she asked.

“They already have,” the little boy said slowly, his eyes still locked on his sister’s. He spoke with absolute unwavering confidence and certainty, the way only a five-year-old could.

“That’s not true,” she pressed, “Your parents’ll be home soon. Your mummy just had an accident they need to fix and they’ll be straight back.” She could still smell the bleach on her sleeves from all of the blood she’d cleaned up and wondered if she was lying.

“They won’t be back,” the girl said. Tabitha looked down at her, tiny hands clasped on the bedspread, her innocent brow furrowed. “Once Mummy can talk again, they won’t come back for us. Not after what we did. They have to leave us with the witch.”

Not getting the joke, she shook her head, a cold feeling of dread beginning to drip into her empty stomach. “I’m not a witch guys!” she chuckled, plucking at her crushed velvet skirt and fashionably torn sleeves. “Is it because of how I dress? I just like how this looks. I’m not a real witch.” She wasn’t about to tell them about the spells and hexes her and Avril had tried, the skull she’d left on her back step just that evening. The boy looked at his sister, but she just stared hard back at Tabitha.

“You are a witch.”

Tabitha shook her head, irritation starting to crowd into her mind. She was going to have to break out her stern voice and she didn’t like doing that. The boy looked skeptical but the little girl’s face hadn’t changed. She knew what she knew. “Look you need to get to sleep now, come on.” She tried to close the door again but they cried out in unison.

“But the monsters! The monsters!” The little boy jumped to his feet on the bed and frantically pointed a finger towards the closet at the back of the room, as though clawed hands were already pushing their way out through the slats of the wardrobe doors.

“All right, all right,” she said, pinching the bridge of her nose; she knew the drill and was too tired to argue. The tiny handles on the doors were shaped like stars with rounded points. Little safe pentagrams. Tabitha pulled them open and gestured at the void in the back of the closet that was bare without the clothes that were scattered all around the room. Part of her wanted to ask why it was empty, but a larger part just wanted to get it done. “See. No monsters in here. Nothing in there.” She went to close the door but the boy shook his head violently.

“You have to get in! Daddy always gets in and knocks on the back three times to scare the monsters away!” She turned to see tears in his eyes, enough fear to make her heart stutter for him despite her annoyance. Would his father be coming home tonight? Would his mother? She had to stoop to fit through the door, her platform boots causing her to bend almost double so she could turn around and peek back out at them. The bottom of her cloak hung loosely out the bottom. The little girl slipped out of bed and stood by the closet door, watching closely to make sure she did it right.

“Go away monster!” she called out, “You’re not welcome here.” She cupped her ear to the silence that followed and waited. “Happy now?” She turned to look out at them and the door snapped shut on her face. She pushed it. It didn’t budge. She pushed again, hard this time, and a crack of light came in before the door sprang back into place.

“Guys, open the door. This isn’t funny.” She kept her voice low but loud, driving the point home. Little feet pittered and pattered back and forth like cockroaches. Hushed whispers met her ears but there was something off, something missing that made her blood run cold.  “Guys! Let me out, right now!” There was silence. No tiny feet, no hushed operations. Blood rose to her cheeks.

Frantically she worked her fingers through the slats and tried shaking the door. From the sliver she could see through, the bedside light was still on but the room was empty. “Kids? Kids you need to come back here right now or you’re in big trouble!” she yelled as loud as she dared. It was getting harder and harder to control herself in her weakened and frazzled state, and that feeling of cold dread in her stomach was spreading. Had they gone to find the blood? She hadn’t even been told their names so she could scold them properly. She listened hard over her own frantic breathing for the utility room door opening.

Something heavy hit the stairs with a thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Entranced by the drumbeat she watched the door. She could just hear their little voices again arguing. She tried one more time to put her weight against the door but nothing moved. It was solidly built. Built by their father no doubt, built to last. She didn’t say a word as they came through the door, too busy trying to see what they were dragging. And then it hit her, the sounds that were missing; there was no laughter, not a single giggle escaped them, just tiny voices and angry whispers. It wasn’t right. It took another moment for her to compute what she was seeing, another for her nose to catch the pungent sweet smell of petrol on the air.

“What is that? What are you doing?” she demanded. They ignored her, using all of the strength in their tiny arms to push the canister to the bottom of the door, liquid sloshing uneasily against hard plastic. That smell didn’t belong in this fluffy lilac and green room, the smell of death and danger wasn’t supposed to exist in hands so small and soft. Tabitha shook the door, kicked the bottom corner with her boot but it held, not even room for her to pull her leg back. “This is really bad guys; you can’t be doing this.”

The children stood back as it soaked the carpet, their faces set and serious. When it had emptied enough that they could lift is again, they worked together to swing it at the wardrobe door, splashing further and further up. Drops slid through the wooden slats. They worked like they’d done this before, practiced even, their faces scrunched up in concentration. Tabitha fell back as it hit her face, the sour taste making her wretch.

“Where is it?”

“You have it!”

“You were supposed to get it!”

On her knees, Tabitha grabbed at the slats again, now at their eye level. “Guys, what is happening? Let me out right now or I swear!” It was like she wasn’t there, liked she’d stopped existing. The little girl handed something to the boy that glinted in the light. Tabitha’s vision was beginning to blur, but she knew what it was even in double vision.

“Don’t. Please,” she pleaded, her throat scratched and rasping.

“Come on do, it!” the little girl pinched her brother’s arm, making him wince, but he didn’t cry. He used both hands to turn the wheel of the plastic zippo, taking four tries to strike up a yellow flame. He took a step forward, his eyes mesmerized by the fire in his own hand for a moment before they finally met Tabitha’s. He hesitated.

“She’s a witch!” The little girl screamed in his ear. “They left us here to get eaten by her! They won’t come back for us after what we did to Mummy, we have to burn her like the story said!” The little girl’s voice filled the room, filled her brother’s ears, filled the space between the lines in the story book, the white corners of the illustrations. Coughing, Tabitha kept her eyes on him, desperately trying to pull his attention to her.

“This is dangerous, you know that. This is REALLY bad. Just put the lighter down and we can have another story ok? We can do whatever you want if you just let me out. You can still be a good boy!”

Something in the boy shifted, something in her words tipping him over the edge. His eyes glossed over. Her gentle pleas turned back to screaming and cursing, threats that she would follow through on if she only got her chance. She would show them what a witch really was.

The boys fingers let go.

The flames spread quickly, jumping from the door to her clothes, running a line from the hem of her cloak to the fat filled flesh of her skin in minutes. They watched the witch burn for as long as they could, fear overridden by fascination at what they’d done. They watched until the screaming lapsed into a choked silence, until the heat and the smoke became too much for their little eyes and tiny lungs to take, then they ran, leaving the sliding door at the back of the house open.

Hand in hand, the woods swallowed them up.

****

Caroline was still buzzing from the house wine as they pulled back into the estate, her hand warm in her husband’s for the first time in… she couldn’t remember. Red and blue lights flashed across her vision, the fuzz of her brain blown away like mist in a hurricane. A fire engine silhouetted against blazing flames that reached for the dark sky.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, straining against her seat belt. Brian squinted out the windscreen with his tongue between his teeth, his head shaking slowly. He slipped his hand from hers to stop the car. It seemed like the whole street was out in slippers and dressing gowns, kids in pyjamas as they clung to their parent’s legs and watched with pale faces as fire fighters fought to quench the flames at the end of the street. Caroline pressed a hand over her heart and said a silent prayer as she saw their house outside the semi-circle of worried faces.

Whatever was going on, Tabitha was safe.