Image © Frances Donnelly 2018
|by Frances Donnelly
|February 1, 2018
She went to his house at dusk, when the sky and the ground and the buildings in between were all mixed into the same purplish soup. Dusk spreading over the village had always calmed Erica, but now she felt the thrill of intermingling currents and things hidden amongst them, and she trailed her fingers in loops ahead and behind her – night to day, day to night, light to dark, dark to light. When the boy she was walking with caught sight of what she was doing and gave her a knowing glance, she bunched her fingers into fists and fixed her eyes on the path ahead.
After walking almost to the edge of the village, they arrived at a small newbuild house, and the boy unlocked the door. Erica followed him inside. He led the way up the cramped stairs to a bedroom. A girl slightly smaller than Erica sat on the floor. The boy locked the door with a thin brass bolt.
“They won’t be home for hours but it’s just in case,” he said, as if it might reassure her. Erica willed herself to be reassured. “This is my sister,” the boy added, pointing at the girl, who gave Erica a benign wide-eyed stare.
The room had a bunkbed against one wall. The floorspace was roughly divided between the two sibling’s belongings, with a chaos of stray shoes, books and toys in the middle. The boy pulled a large box out from under the bunkbed and the girl knelt over it. She lifted off the top layer of comics, revealing a pile of glossy magazines for adults hidden below. Then she looked up.
“Why are you here?” she asked Erica.
“No friends,” said the boy.
Without replying, the girl dug through the pile, her little hands sliding around clumsily. She finally pulled out a crumpled woman’s weekly, spread it over her bare knees, and flipped through to an article. It was titled Lonely No More! The girl eyed the page for a while, and then read aloud from it in a careful, reedy voice.
“You want someone who can understand you. Who listens. You need some space to let loose and be yourself.”
Erica nodded. She did need space to be herself, and she did wish someone understood her and listened to her.
The girl traced the page with her finger. “It says you deserve it all and you shouldn’t settle for less.”
Adrenaline was making Erica feel like she was rolling forwards unstoppably down a narrow pipe. The boy looked on casually, leaning against the wall. Erica looked at the younger girl’s face, but saw no signs of confusion about the mysterious advice. The girl looked about nine. Erica promised herself she’d figure it out later.
“OK,” she said.
The boy nodded, then went to the door and unbolted it. Erica’s muscles were suddenly straining with readiness to be walking away into the cool evening.
But the boy said, “We need to go to their room now.”
The girl looked at Erica excitedly.
Erica knew who they were from the way he said it. Her stomach, already high and tight, hardened further. The boy and girl both seemed at ease though, and she instinctively realised that their parents weren’t dangerous in the way that hers were. She followed them along the hall.
The room was cloaked in almost complete darkness. It smelt damp and sweet. A huge unmade ghost bed filled up most of the floorspace. The boy crept theatrically across the carpet to the side of the bed and turned on a lamp, quickly twisting the neck downwards to cast the smallest pool of light possible. The messy bed, illuminated, was a chaos of heavily shadowed shapes.
The boy took a wine-coloured book from the deep bedside drawer. Erica and the girl stood close behind him, watching. Erica saw other things in the drawer: a long, smooth thing, packets and fabrics and a tube of something. The boy paid them no attention, clearly having seen it all before. He tipped the book under the light, checked the contents, and thumbed through the pages.
“Summoning a special friend for special fun.” The boy glanced up briefly at Erica, but his face was a grey mask hidden in a halo of the lamplight from behind him. The boy read the spell in his casual way, stumbling over some of the strangest and longest words.
The girl then crouched down next to her brother, and smoothed out the woman’s weekly under the lamplight. She spoke the words carefully. “If you find someone who will accept the real you, you’ve got to be grateful. Really share yourself and not hold back. Give yourself every day. Then he’ll never stray.”
The boy put the dark red book back in the drawer, tipped the lamp’s neck up, turned off the light, and led Erica and his sister down to the front door. Erica gave him £7, and saw him hand £2 to his sister. She waved shyly at the younger girl and left.
In her own room, Erica tried to piece together what she’d been told. She laid out some of her favourite belongings: pictures of beautiful musicians with dreamy eyes, some jewellery she had found at a garden sale, her favourite book of stories, her collection of stones. When she finally laid herself down beneath the cool softness of her duvet, she was too excited to sleep. It will be a moth or maybe a bat and it will love stories or it will be a boy who loves music it will be a bird a friend a goat a frog a game a fat flower a funny dog –
She thrashed around until the sound of her shrill alarm clock pulled her from bed, sleepy but still agitated. When she got dressed, her uniform felt itchy. When she ate breakfast, she struggled to finish the tasteless mouthfuls. The day at school drew out in an endless line of painfully boring syllables and numbers, and afterwards she hurried straight home to her bedroom. She sat on her bed neatly as if she was in a waiting room. She stared at the arrangement on her floor, and the clear sky outside her window. She waited and waited. Dusk began smudging the world. Nothing happened. She got ready for bed, then took her diary out of her drawer and unlocked its tiny lock. She curled up beside it in her bed, and wrote in frustrated looping passages. Then she locked it up and put it away, and switched off her bedside lamp.
In the blackness of the night, she woke up to a sudden loud bang that might have happened in her dreams. She turned on the light. Someone was in the corner of her room. She swallowed a mouthful of cold sick fear.
It was a huge man, with features that were adult, but imprecise. Erica sat frozen for a long time. The scream she’d silenced hung in her ringing ears. The room felt shrunken and the thing felt impossibly big, too big to fit. It stood in shadow, silence spreading out around it. Erica slowly gathered herself, until she was able to skirt around the edge of the room to the main light switch. When she switched it on, the thing’s features were no more precise. It was grey and stony, like unlit moonrock. It was perfectly still, and all its parts seemed fused together. She stood staring for a while before she noticed the pile at it feet.
Her special things had been re-arranged in a crisscross stack like a tiny bonfire. On top of them, balanced, was a book: her diary. Her secret diary. It lay unlocked and spread open, her curling words exposed. Without touching the pile, Erica got back into bed without turning off the light, and lay still and alert beneath the covers.
The next day after school she found the boy, and they went behind the shops to talk. She didn’t mention the details, the diary. Just the thing that had appeared. As she spoke, the boy stiffened.
He said: “Keep it hidden. Or we’re all in the shit. During the day, drape something over it, a blanket or something. Then your parents won’t be able to see it. And remember to do what it wants. You should know what it wants.” Under the plain afternoon sun, the boy didn’t look knowing or smug. He looked pinched and worried and small. He didn’t look at Erica at all.
That night, Erica took her diary out of its hiding place and held it on her lap. The air in her room became tight, pressing into her. She wanted to go outside into the cool night.
In the belly of her house below, she heard her parents come in, unusually early, then the immediate woozy rhythm and punctuated deep voices leading up and up higher and faster towards a fight. The thing stood before her. She felt trapped and uneasy, like in the changing rooms after swimming. She bunched her fists, bowed her head, and began to read in a whisper. When she’d finished a few pages and looked up, she was a bit dizzy but didn’t feel much else.
And so it began and continued, that every night she read to the thing from her diary. Sometimes, she a felt bit sick. The reading drained her. She decided it was best to think of it as another household chore to be done before bedtime. But she was glad to have the company, and appreciated having someone to show gratitude to.
After two weeks, the thing seemed to have expanded. When she was finished reading, Erica would whisper a thank you before she turned off her lamp. The thing now glowed in the darkness each night, exuding a light that turned Erica’s room and body grey. The grey light rendered her young face ageless, and she turned her head tiredly away from it as she entered a dreamless sleep.
Frances Donnelly is a writer and musician. She lives in Brighton with five rescue rats and a human partner, and she works in digital communications for leftwing organisations. Her writing can be found in various places online and in print. She is autistic. You can contact her at: franceslauradonnelly (at) gmail.com