Susan sorted the hump of clothing with her feet and muttered at William’s ability to work so quickly through his endless wardrobe. In the light spilt from the doorway she spotted garments bundled in plastic between the wall and Edward’s vehicle, and dragged them into the laundry, wrinkling her nose.
“You can wait.” she promised, stuffing her own clothes into the machine and fighting the antiquated dial. When it refused her, she entered into a similar battle with the dusty radio; reports of a serial killer on the other side of the country prompted her onward through the bandwidth, too late to avert an ambush by her own recollected dead. The grimacing lich of an overdosed friend, lying soaked in its own rancid sweat and the waxen-shiny faces of her parents in their matching caskets answered a summons she had never learned to predict, leaving her to plough back into her task, using a garden stake to stuff a heavy kilt stained with alcohol into a bucket of water. A livid prickling crossed her shoulders as she did so, an almost chemical reaction to something decanting through the glass behind her, the pane morphing from passive aperture into a black and staring eye; Susan was careful to keep her gaze from it, turning the taps beneath without looking up until the suggestion faded.
The black jersey she extracted from the bag of Edward’s clothing intensified her frown, something dark stiffening the fabric across the chest and upper third of its sleeves. Having plunged it into the tub Susan watched the water flush dull red around her wrists, liberating first the colour and then the dirty, curling smell of stale blood. Whipping her hands from it, she stood with them dripping alongside her, fishing out the garment with the stick when she had recovered. An inspection of the pile conducted with a sleeve pressed to her mouth revealed no other suspect garments but extinguished all further interest in the work, the impulse to decamp curtailed only by an intruding sound, a soft, peripheral rustle so faint that she had to remain completely still to hear it.
The night gazed in through the window once more, the crickets ceasing their rasping song at the foot of the wall outside. She closed her eyes. The almost heedful noise crept in again, little more than rustling until its whispering qualities grew too pronounced, becoming a hiss, which mounted slowly into a moaning snarl, then further, forming chewed and thickly garbled words in a voice like a saw blade dragged through dead wood. Fright flew at her; she lurched backward toward the yawning darkness of the garage, where the small door beside the vehicular entrance stood ajar, outlined in orange by the distant street lamp. Behind her, the scurling voice had fallen silent and through the half-greened glass the rose canes swayed faintly and settled.
She fled, groping through the cavernous blackness and bowling into unseen debris, leaving it scattered in her wake as she leapt up into the hallway, spinning around to clap the door shut and foisting the heavy bolt into the plate. As her breathing slowed discomfort told her of the key stamped into her palm by her fingers, and while she shook her hand the dull silver bar before her shifted in the light admitted by the front door panes, tilting briefly, then returning to the horizontal. Before she could question herself the handle moved again, the old spring grinding until it pointed almost at the floor, the orange eye of light inside the keyhole flickering blackly.
Susan scurried backward into the kitchen, dashing to the windows to drag the gingham curtains closed and wiping her hand over the switches on the wall. Her arms shook as she retreated into the corner beside the chrome-trimmed bulk of the refrigerator, where she stepped down onto a broom and knocked its handle into her back. Dropping her face into her hands, she swore again and forced herself to remain in the middle of the room until she could summon the courage to look again toward the hall door. Its handle sat in a passive neutrality that admonished her retreat; nothing further issued from the garage and she shook her head, standing with hands on hips until relief matured into a rueful skepticism and prompted her to cast about for a distraction. A glance toward the cupboards reminded her of the preserving jars in their forgotten compartments. They clinked together musically as she heaved the shallow box onto the counter, encountering the nettling smell of pickling spices and a sticky hint of christmas fruit.
Susan's eyes closed with the immersion of her arms into the sink between the glass that rolled beneath the perfumed suds. Rainbow-painted bubbles slid down the walls of each jar she set on the counter; it was on the curve of the last that she saw another collection of colours reflected.
"Fucking hell!" she cried, a wave of suds slopping onto the linoleum at the sight of the figure seated at the table, wearing striped pyjama pants. “Why don’t you make a bloody noise like a normal person?”
“You told me not to at three in the morning.” William reminded her, sipping from a bottle of vodka.
"Was that you out there just now?" His vacant expression replied in the negative. "There was someone in the garage..." Susan insisted, nodding toward it. He glanced about himself, twisting the handle from the broom and rolling it over his knuckles as he walked into the hall where she heard him unlock the door, shaking his head as he returned. “I'm going mad, then." she sighed. "What are you doing down here?”
“If I knew, I’d say. What're you doing?”
She frowned, tugging a tea towel from its hook and polishing the jars.
“Mystery jam.” she conceded, nodding to the bowl of velvet-black cane fruit she had pulled from the refrigerator. “They were in the garden. I wouldn’t do that...” she added as he put one in his mouth. “You've got to check them for grubs.” William ate another, examining the ingredients she had assembled; the bright scent of the lemon was a ballistic sensation in his nose as he squeezed its waxy skin. “Can’t sleep?”
“Can’t sleep, can’t stay awake... can’t lie down... don’t want to stand up.”
“Can I get you anything?”
He let his head roll sideways.
“Novacaine... don’t suppose you’ve got any on you... er... no. You’ve got blood, though... on you...”
She looked down at the stain left by the laundry water across her apron and dragged the garment over her head as though it were aflame. Her distress was made all the more poignant by her flannel nightgown and disordered hair, and it struck him that little more than two decades had passed since her induction to a world that he himself had barely begun to grasp. Her haunting youth prompted him to tug a little plastic bottle from his pocket and tip a handful of capsules down his throat; he drunk from the tap while she stared in an amended horror.
“William, if you’re going to do that, could you please go outside to die, because I don’t want to find your body in the house.”
“It’s only Demerol, and I'm not lactating... What’s that?” he asked; she turned, but looked back in time to see the lemon poised between his teeth. At her demand he returned it to her hand and stood, face brightened by her censure. “Mystery jam requires a lovely assistant.” he insisted, the peculiar euphony of the assurance prompting her to pull them both a fresh apron from the drawer.
“You have to check them for grubs.” she instructed, setting the fruit before him. He lifted the berries to his nose.
"Check them." He did so in a faineant manner, then noticed her look of inquiry.
"Hit me." he suggested.
"It's personal." she warned.
"I think I'm still wondering what you're doing here, exactly... in this house."
He inspected the berries between thumb and forefinger.
"Don't you like it?"
"The house? Yes, actually, when it's not giving me a heart attack. It reminds me of camping." Susan looked up to qualify the admission. "Primitive post-apocalyptic camping. But I asked you..."
"For what?" She nodded toward the cupboard before him. "Vanilla essence... little brown bottle.” The tiny vessel he handed her retained only a shallow fraction of its highly-flavoured tincture. “I just bought this!” she complained, her suspicion degrading the irreproachability of his pale features.
“It tastes pretty.” William confessed, sitting the lemon on his thumbnail and catapulting it toward his left hand, where it landed and sat, after a moment of correction, upon the tip of his index finger. She slapped a bag of sugar onto the counter.
"Waiting for what?"
"For my brother. To get better."
"I hope you brought a book to read or something." The lemon flew again between his hands; she smiled and glanced into the bowl of fruit. “Finish looking through those, then measure out... I think it’s the same weight of sugar...”
“Why are you roasting the glass?”
“Did you not do this at school?” The last word suffered unwittingly emphasis as she grabbed at the yellow fruit in mid-saltation. "You have to sterilize them. Stop doing that." she laughed while William flipped the lemon over her head, offering it to her with a smile and watching her attempt the feat herself. It rolled hopelessly from her fingertip; he found a carving knife and used the heavy blade to lop one end of the fruit into his hand. "How do you still have fingers?" she exclaimed, grinning as the alteration allowed her a moment of success. He shrugged.
"They grow back."
By the time she had finished loading the glass into the oven he had completed his chores and tipped the purple-staining fruit into the huge pot she had selected, adding the requisite water without instruction. Their flat, murky scent rose with the heat of the element; William pushed the measure of frost-white sugar toward her, unscrewed the cap from the essence bottle and held it poised over the glittering pyramid, eyes returning to her before tapping six caramel drops around its apex.
“What do you do with this?” he asked of the erstwhile lemon.
“That goes in too.” Susan caught his arm before he could drop it whole into the pot. “The juice. You’ll need a...” He halved it and both portions yielded their acidulating pulp from either of his fists. Standing to one side of the range, she nodded to his offer of the sugar; he watched the wine-dark liquor metamorphose into something far more alluring than the sum of its homely parts.
“But jam is... what’s the word? Épais… er, collant?”
“When it sticks to the back of the spoon, it’s ready.” The explanation did not satisfy him and he leant against the counter in an attitude of loose dubiety.
"Which words do you use?"
"How do you mean?"
“To make it change. What do you say?”
She shook her head at the sincerity of the inquiry.
“What, like... magic?" He frowned slightly at her grin. "It’s not the middle bloody ages... it's the heat. It does something to the pectin. You know... science?”
“Magic is a science.”
“Yes... I’m sure the Demerol fairies seem quite realistic at times, especially when they get together with the Absolut trolls.” she murmured dryly, to which he sucked in a sharp breath.
“Christabel... you’re critiquing my drug use like you give a damn.”
"Well, I don't really fancy dragging your enormous corpse all the way to the green waste bin. Does no one else say anything? Look... it's setting now. I need the jars out.” Her hands flew to her face when he stooped to lift the smoking vessels from the oven with his naked fingers and arranged them on the stainless steel; her horror caused him to glance up from the process, if not to abandon it. “Don't pour it yet, you’re supposed to wait five minutes or all the fruit floats to the top.”
William received the caveat with dismay and stood as though subject to some indictment against all movement; she followed his gaze as it travelled slowly from the pot to her face and back again, a process repeated three times before she relented. He apportioned the dark emulsion and screwed on the lids with no more concern for their temperature than he had previously evinced. The sight of him bending to stare, first at the completed preserves, then in hope of her endorsement renewed her smile.
“Now you wait for the lids to pop.”
Susan was reacquainted with the apron lying on the linoleum as she sat beside the window. He let himself down onto the table and lay before her on his side, elbow sliding as his hand took the weight of his head. She accepted a swig of his vodka while he looked back at her with the kind of unabashed absorption she could not have directed at any conscious object. Whether his opulent felinity was derived from the nature of his features or his confiding manner was something she could not decide; he nodded at the apron.
“What were you saying about cutting someone up and rolling in their blood? We’ll tell the cops it was an accident...”
“It’s from your brother’s clothes."
He shrugged one shoulder.
"I can't lie. He had it coming."
"I found them by the car and thought they wanted doing.” She sighed. “God... that is blood, isn’t it? I had my hands right in it.”
“It's his art... it's going through an emo splatter phase... he's not happy til everything looks like a Manson family baby shower. Wouldn't surprise me if he'd drained a fucking deer to get the texture right.” Being able to discount her worst suspicion proved attractive, and she nodded as she set her chin on her fists.
“Whatever it is, it’s in the laundry and it’s minging and I’m not paid enough to touch it. What’s got you out of bed at three in the morning?”
"Christabel, don't get me started..." he groaned, rolling onto his back. “It’s one of those things... you know, a Japanese movie thing. You can’t tell anyone because they’ll think you’re methylated or batshit, but every time you open the door and have another look it's worse... it's growing tentacles and coming after you and there's nothing you can do...”
"I don't know why you're worried about your English. It's perfectly alright."
"You think? Ed keeps telling me it's fucked..." His smile returned one to her own face.
"You were saying..."
“You go first.” he urged.
“How’s this for paranoia, then? I think someone’s hanging round the house at night... that's what I was freaking out about before. I was out there doing the washing, and I swear there was someone at the window... I heard this horrible voice, like... speaking in tongues...” The recollection trailed coldly over her skin. William rolled to sit at the edge of the table. “It was hideous. Like... a possessed person talking to themselves.”
"Okay..." he nodded. "We'll keep everything locked down from now on."
"Really? I was hoping you'd tell me I was a nutter." she confessed, to which he slid a hand under her forearm, demonstrating the tremor that had returned to it.
"That's not paranoia, cloudcheeks." She smiled at the endearment. "Always trust the flesh. But don't worry too fucking much... it's probably Rachelle."
"It's not your brother and that girl that's bothering you, is it? Who is she?"
"Are they together?"
"She's a whore."
"Oh... oh... um... so they're..."
William shook his head gravely.
"C'est trop dur compliqué. Let's get back to you, Susan Ellen Christabel." he muttered, gazing down at her feet. "Look at the slippers... you could be anyone. How did you even get here? Are they wing'd rabbits?"
"I'm not telling you. It's stupid."
"Stupid is my special thing."
"Stupid and boring."
"Well I'm sitting here fapping to the thought of fucking jam lids popping so whatever else you've got for me is good."
"Oh god, alright... my mate's boyfriend had a maisonette in Hoxton, she was moving in and they needed flatmates. I went down the shops to get a toaster, and it had one of those stupid 'win a holiday' things on it... I don't usually bother, but everyone said yeah do it, so I did... and a month later I actually won a holiday. I brought my mate Jules... we got two weeks at the Peninsula and two grand spending." Susan laughed to herself. "Most of that went on the bloody minibar, and then it was time to go back, and I just... I didn't want to, so I stayed on. Jules was well pissed off. She went back in a strop and I haven't heard from her since."
"I au paired for a while in town, but that was fucking horrible... then I got bar work, and everyone told me you couldn't get anything decent without an agency, so... I got an agency."
"Shit, that's right... you're still with Opal..."
"Do you know her?"
“Yeah, I know that chupa hag... she’s Ed’s agent.”
“Anyway, I can’t afford a flat on my muppet wages, I’m paying off one bloody credit card with the other and I’m stuck with this stupid agency now, and I owe them fees... she keeps asking for my passport too, the dodgy cow.”
"Don't give her your papers, Christabel."
"I'm not that stupid. Just stupid enough to let her know I'm an overstayer."
"I'll talk to Ed about it. Hey..." he added, pushing the bottle toward her. "I did that thing with the phone... turning it off. It's fucking great."
"I'm very happy for you." she mused.
Susan watched him slide from the table again to inspect the jars. As he bent down a grotesque circumstance revealed itself in the form of a pearl-coloured scar, half an inch thick and wandering down under his dorsal tattoo, distorting it slightly as he bent over. Along the line the two halves of the black design had been reinstated carefully; the scar began on his left shoulder and descended beneath his singlet, surfacing in a broad loop on his hip. She raised a hand to her mouth, appalled.
“What happened to you?” The tactless nature of the question rang in her own ears. William turned back to her. "Sorry...” she sighed, embarrassed.
“Don't worry... it’s gross, I know.” he admitted.
“Were you... was it a car accident?" The notion gelled with certain other of her impressions and seemed suddenly, abashingly apposite.
“Er, no. An argument.” he replied. His gaze shifted in the glare of the florescent bar, and she noticed that he rarely blinked; William turned toward the cupboards as though for something in particular but his hands betrayed the aimless nature of his discomfort. Behind the curtains the darkness pressed its blank face to the window once more.
“That's so horrible... I don’t know you can just hack someone with a knife...”
“Well... there are different ways of looking at it.” He returned to the table and swung his legs from the edge. “I was thinking the other day, because it’s, you know... supposed to stop you getting dementia... and I thunked that violence isn’t really weird."
"Yes it is. It's hideous."
"But think of it like this... if you had to come up with five things you’d never do, under any circumstances... violence isn't one of them, is it?" he inquired of her. "Five things... I got to one and a half, and fell asleep, exhausted. You just have to be be... philosophical. Fuck commandments." William handed her a cigarette and lifted the bottle to his lips, voice echoing down into its empty space as he continued along the tangent. "I hate organized religion... I do sort of miss shame, though... it was quite funny sometimes... people getting all fucked up about stupid shit. But then you always get the ones who want to overdo everything, and everyone starts jailing cats and coveting thy neighbour's homosexuals..."
She blinked slowly in the pall of weariness that had descended with the lulling influence of his voice.
"How can you miss shame?"
"I said..." Susan yawned into her hand. "How can you miss shame? You weren't even born." They both started as a lid popped loudly. Rubbing at an eye with one hand she yawned again into the other. “Don't say anything to your brother about the creeping... I don’t want to have to talk about night stalkers to someone who comes home covered in blood.” she confessed dourly, hauling herself from the chair. “Thanks for helping with the jam.”
"Who knew it was that easy to make fruit your bitch?" he smiled. "You alright, Christabel?"
She stood in the doorway and shrugged.
"I suppose so. Are you?"
He listened to her ascend the stairs and drank long after she was gone, thoughts descending from deep green and into black as he pushed back the curtains and stared out into the night. Nothing stirred without except an owl, clapping its beak at a roosting neighbour disturbed by the light from Susan’s window.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
© céili o'keefe do not reproduce