Authors: Neil Cross
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Crime
She’s passed him on the high street several times since then. He says
and drops his eyes and moves on. Steph feels sorry for him now, sorry for the embarrassment his uncontrolled love caused him. Letting teenagers fall in love is like letting them drive sports cars. There’s far too much power in the engine.
She parks across the road, relieved to see the house, the lights on. She regrets her spontaneous offer of fried chicken because it smells and because it’s terrible for you and because she loves the chips, dusted with salt and dipped in glutinous, just-warm-enough chicken gravy. And she knows she’ll overcompensate tomorrow, have a tiny breakfast, a salad for lunch. And then, around 3.30, she’ll get cranky and overcompensate again with a fat slice of carrot cake. She’ll be revisited by guilt and she’ll eat nothing for dinner except perhaps some noodles. She’ll go to bed with a headache.
She slots the key in the lock, and turns it. She opens the door a crack.
She turns her head, to hurry Dan along. Even in the rain, he’s dawdling. ‘Hurry up,’ she says, ‘it’s getting cold.’
Two men are walking just behind Dan’s shoulder.
Steph doesn’t know them. But at once, she knows them completely. One of them is young and handsome and scared. The other is compact and strutting, with hair in a neat parting.
Nazi hair, she thinks. That’s what they called kids with hair like that when she was at school.
Both men are wearing backpacks.
Dan turns to follow her appalled gaze. The smaller man swings something. It’s an aluminium baseball bat. He swings it low and vicious, at her son’s knee.
Dan has long, skinny legs and big feet – Steph’s legs. Sometimes at night they still hurt with the growing.
Steph hears bone crack and thinks of ice cubes in glasses.
She draws in her breath but before she can scream the younger of the men rushes forward and shoves the hot, greasy bucket of chicken into her face.
She chokes and panics, stifled by a gorge of fried skin and flesh and hot fat.
The young man punches her in the stomach. Steph falls, gagging, to the ground. The young man starts kicking her.
Patrick turns from the woman and goes to the kid, Dan. He’s howling about his broken leg like a fucking baby. Patrick glances nervously left and right. But no lights come on. Nobody comes to their window. Nobody shouts. Nobody interferes.
Nobody ever does.
Patrick hits the boy with a homemade cosh, a hiking sock filled with AA batteries. It wrecks the teeth in the kid’s head. The kid coughs and cries and spits fragments of tooth all over the concrete path.
The kid grabs at his mouth and makes a weird muffled noise, like somebody trying to say something urgent through a thin partition wall.
Henry drags the woman into the house by her hair. He gets chicken all over his fingers.
Marcus sets down the omelette pan and says to his daughter, ‘Stay here.’
She stares at him with wide eyes as he hurries away. She listens to the omelette burning on the stove. She can’t believe her dad – so orderly, so safety-conscious – has forgotten it. And this thought makes her feel weak and afraid and very small. In its way it’s worse than the horrible noises – the bangs and the crashes and most of all the terrible, terrible screams – that are coming from the other side of the house.
Mia needs to feel big. So she walks to the cooker and turns it off. Then she moves the pan off the hob.
She puts the hot pan into the damp sink. It sizzles, shockingly, like a serpent. She recoils from it.
A man in dark clothes drags Steph through the open door. Steph’s face is smeared in some kind of matter.
Gabriella thinks at first that it must be vomit, that Steph’s eaten her KFC and it’s made her unwell and this man must have brought her home.
But only for a moment.
The man sees Gabriella and grins a wolf’s grin, chop-licking, ear to ear. He kicks Steph in the ribs, then steps forward, raising a baseball bat.
Gabriella steps away. She stumbles over a shoe, one of Mia’s Converse.
The man swings a bat. It connects with the side of Gabriella’s head. She hears it. She falls.
The man stamps on her stomach three times, like he’s putting out a camp fire.
Marcus runs into the hallway.
Steph lies with her eyes open. She’s making strange movements with her right hand.
Dan is fighting with a young man in the front garden. The young man is hitting him again and again in the face.
Marcus makes a move to intervene, then notices the man in the living room. He’s stamping on Gabriella’s belly. He’s only a door away from the kitchen.
Marcus calls out, ‘
Then he races into the living room and punches the man in the back of the head.
He grabs the man’s shoulders and throws him into the wall.
The man drops his baseball bat.
Gabriella drags herself to the far side of the room. She’s making a sound. Marcus hopes he never hears a sound like it again.
He casts around, looking for something to kill the man with. That’s his only thought.
His eyes settle on the TV power lead. He steps forward, meaning to grab it.
The younger man steps into the living room and stabs Marcus in the back with a hunting knife.
Mia stands frozen. She can feel the heat of the cooker on the back of her neck.
Because she’s eleven years old, her life so far has been full of horror: the horror of lying in bed at night and worrying about Mum and Dad dying in a plane crash or getting divorced.
The horror of the wardrobe door. And the thing under the bed. And worst of all, the teddy bear Grandma bought her for her fourth birthday. It’s perched on the edge of Mia’s bed and glares at her through glassy, malevolent eyes. When Mum and Dad have gone to bed Mia covers Bad Bear with a fleecy blanket, making him just a vague lumpy shape. It freaks her out to think of his amber eyes blazing in rage. But it’s better than having him glower at you all night. (She’d wet the bed a few times, and made up some stories about drinking too much water before going to sleep. But really, it was Bad Bear.)
One day, Mia told her the au pair (in those days, a Spanish girl called Camilla) that she was too big for bears now. Perhaps it was time for a Poor Child to have him (the world, she knew at five years old, was full of Poor Children).
Camilla was touched by this gesture. And so was Steph. So Steph and Mia sat in Mia’s room, on the edge of the bed, holding hands.
Steph said, ‘Camilla told me you’re too grown up for Cuddle Bear.’ (Cuddle Bear was what Mia’s mum and dad thought Bad Bear was called.)
Mia nodded and bit her lower lip. She could feel her eyes welling, because she was sure Mum was going to say no, that Bad Bear was a gift from Grandma, who had now passed.
Steph misread her daughter’s welling eyes. She stroked her brow and her soft hair with a firm palm. ‘Where would you like Cuddle Bear to go?’
‘Well,’ said Steph. ‘I know they always want toys at the children’s hospital.’
Mia endured a little shiver of terror at that thought: at how Bad Bear would delight in all those beds, all those sleeping children! But (and she feels a throb of guilt about this, even six years and half a life later) she nodded and said
. And that was that. Bad Bear went to hospital.
No fear since has been anywhere near as bad.
Except for now. She stands in the kitchen and terrifying noises come from the hallway. The noise of men shouting and things falling over and what sounds like a horrible laugh, a screeching hysterical laugh. But it’s not a laugh.
Mia pisses herself. The warmth runs down her legs and over her bare feet and pools on the tiles.
Dad calls out for the second time, ‘
Mia remains frozen for a moment. Then something snaps inside her and she runs.
After stabbing Marcus, Patrick hurries to the front garden to drag Daniel inside.
Daniel’s semi-conscious. Patrick dumps him near his mother.
He sees that look, the look that Henry told him about.
Henry was right. It looks like adoration.
Patrick hates Daniel for it. He stamps on Daniel’s shattered knee.
After Patrick has incapacitated the husband, Henry turns to the au pair.
Although under normal circumstances he’d like to fuck her, Henry’s not interested in her tonight. She’s more of a pet than part of the family.
So he drags her by the hair to the middle of the room and cuts her throat in front of Marcus. There’s a satisfying jet of arterial blood.
She twitches comically and Henry laughs. He catches Marcus’s eye, the way two strange men will catch each other’s eye on the seafront when a pretty girl walks past.
Marcus jellyfishes on the floor. He’s muttering something about God.
Henry laughs, enjoying himself. He slips on the old brass knuckles and punches Marcus in the face –
woom woom woom
Marcus’s nose explodes across his face. Henry thinks he’s dead. But he’s not.
‘Pleath,’ Marcus says, through his shattered mouth. ‘Pleath. Pleath. Pleath.’
Henry loves that.
‘Pleath what?’ he says.
But then he remembers why he came here.
He says, ‘Patrick?’
Patrick steps into the room. He’s treading blood everywhere.
He’s hangdog and surly, slope-shouldered.
Henry finds him disgusting, physically repulsive. He’d like to smash his stupid fucking sulky face in with the brass knuckles,
woom woom woom
, and that would be that. He’d leave him here, face smashed, brains plopping into his lap like Play-Doh.
Henry says, ‘Where’s the little girl?’
‘Yes,’ says Henry, with exaggerated patience. ‘Mia.’
‘I thought you had her.’
‘Does it look like I’ve got her?’
Patrick doesn’t answer.
‘So go and get her,’ Henry says.
‘What about the mother and son?’
Henry shrugs off his backpack, unzips it, takes out the new hatchet. ‘I’ll sort them out.’
Patrick sets off to find Mia. He steps over the au pair – her foot is still doing a farcical little twitch, as if she’s pretending to be asleep but unable to resist dancing to a favourite song heard on a distant radio.
For some reason this makes Patrick sad. That twitching foot, a single brown freckle on the sole.
Patrick heads to the kitchen. It’s a big house with a big kitchen, but he knows his way around. He’s been in here before.
Somebody’s been making an omelette; there’s a jug smeared with egg, a fork still sticking out of it. There’s the black pan, a serious cook’s pan, cooling and greasy in the butler sink.
Patrick’s senses are heightened. He can feel heat radiating from the stove.
Nobody’s in here.
He looks down. There’s a puddle of piss on the floor.
The cupboard under the sink is open.
Patrick kneels. He opens the cupboard door. Sees cleaning equipment. Sponges. A roll of bin bags.
He opens the next cupboard. And the next.
He opens the pantry.
He clambers onto the kitchen bench, looks in the high kitchen cupboards. That would be a good place to hide. That’s where Patrick would think about hiding if he were Mia’s age. (Except Patrick hadn’t hidden at all, had he?)
Mia’s not in the kitchen.
He pads down the hallway. He checks the cupboard under the stairs. A Dyson, a cobwebby Swiffer floor mop, a whole bunch of crap. He shines his little torch into the spidery corner.
He stands at the bottom of the stairs and shines his torch up and into the darkness.
If he were Mia, would he hide up there?
In the darkness? With Henry downstairs?
Patrick heads to the garden.
Mia didn’t want to go upstairs. It was dark. She knew she’d be trapped. So she sneaked out, into the garden.
It’s a pretty big garden, high-walled on three sides. The walls are too high for her to climb.
An old potting shed abuts the back of the house. A long time ago, it was an outside lavatory or something. It’s spidery and horrible. The old bricks are crumbly at the corners.
Mia’s barefoot. She straddles the corner of the outhouse, digs her fingertips and toes into the crumbling mortar between the bricks. She tests it for depth, then lifts herself. Her fingers tremble with the strain.
Her feet scrabble. She rips a toenail. But Dad calls her a monkey because she’s good at climbing.
She’s halfway up the wall of the outhouse when a man walks into the kitchen.
Mia freezes on the wall like a gecko.
The only moving thing is her heart. It feels conspicuous, a sick, wet,
in her thin chest.
She watches the man, who has a strangely gentle and worried face, like a boy soldier. Then he opens a cupboard and looks inside. He sweeps all the stuff inside across the floor.
Mia knows the man is looking for her. It’s difficult not to watch, the way it’s difficult not to watch scary movies sometimes, because sometimes looking away is worse.
The man peers through the window. She watches his eyes scan the garden.
His eyes sweep over her.
She realizes that the kitchen light is on, which is why the kitchen looks as bright as a fish tank. The man is probably staring at his own reflection.
But that’s difficult to accept. So when the man turns and storms out of the kitchen, she thinks it’s a trap. She stays there, clinging to the wall, too scared to move.
He’s gone for a long time.
Mia begins to climb again.
She grazes her fingers and her toes, and once her leg slips; she barks her shin to the knee. But she makes it. She heaves and struggles and pulls herself onto the roof of the old outhouse.
Then the young man comes back to the kitchen. He opens the door and steps into the garden.
Mia freezes on the roof of the outhouse. She squats there like a cat. She is higher than the man’s head. If he doesn’t look up, it’s possible that he won’t see her.
He pokes around the garden, probing the corners with the beam of a torch. When he turns in her direction, she sees that his face is different: it’s scrunched up as if he’s been crying. There’s black stuff all over one side of his face, in the vague shape of a human hand. Except Mia knows it’s not really black stuff, it’s red stuff.