Fine blonde hairs on taught limbs moved in the breeze. The door slammed down as the breeze left them and they were alone in the dark cold space where they no longer kept a car. The last of the day’s light reached them from beneath the metal door where it barely met the concrete below.
Back inside the house, a girl bent forward, opening the red velvet cape as she did so to create the effect of a curtain closing. A smaller, toga clad girl twirled around on one foot and stopped breathless, smiling widely up at her sister.
“Esther! Was I good, Esther?” she asked. Eyebrow raised, the girl threw off her cape and wrapped her arms around the breathless, warm bundle.
“Yes Aria. You were good. Now, we’d better get changed for dinner.” Esther folded the cape and helped untie the material at Aria’s shoulder.
“When will we show mummy and daddy our play?”
“When it’s ready. We need one more practice first I think” she answered authoritatively. The girls ambled through to the kitchen, adjusting their clothes while they sniffed the air. “The oven’s not even on!” Esther frowned and walked over to the back door, pulled it open wide and looked out toward the garage. When she heard no sounds, she took a step forward, but Aria put her hand out in front of her sister’s legs.
“Nooo! We have to stay inside, daddy is playing with mummy.” Cool fear chilled Esther and she shivered briefly before moving back inside and pulling shut the door. “We can have maconi cheese!” Aria skipped over to stand below the cupboard that she knew contained the microwave food. Esther tried to focus on being normal for Aria.
“Macaroni” she corrected her sister, moving across the kitchen and reaching above Aria to take out the pasta. She set the food to heat and clenched her jaw, turned over her options in her mind. When she turned around, however, her sister was watching her, chewing at her thumb, her soft skin puckering slightly at the brow.
“Why don’t you like it when mummy and daddy play?” she asked; she sounded quiet and frightened of the response she might receive. Esther tipped the macaroni cheese from the packet onto a plate and put it on the table.
“I don’t mind it” she lied. “OK come on then, sit down and eat, or it’ll go cold.” Esther pulled out the chair and helped her get settled. “Water?” she asked. Aria nodded, lifting her food to her mouth. As she began to chew she appeared to forget about whatever didn’t feel good; she licked the sticky warm cheese from her fork and started to eat more quickly, hungry. Esther went to the sink and ran the water, looked out from the window across to the dark garage, its door closed. Why wouldn’t they put the light on? But she knew why. She’d seen them when they played.
She’d been playing herself; playing catch with the neighbour’s son. The ball had bounced away and rolled in front of the garage door. She knew to be quiet when they were there. Her father had told her they weren’t to be disturbed. She’d walked as silently as she could in her trainers. The son – Tom was his name – watched her curiously. He must have wondered what she was doing, why she didn’t just run and grab the ball. She and Aria weren’t allowed to tell anybody that their parents played in the garage. And then her breath caught and her face reddened, her skin prickling under her shirt, when she saw what she saw.
She knew she couldn’t make any noise. Her eyes welled and spilled as she concentrated on breathing slowly and quietly through her nose, her lips clamped shut. She stayed as still as she could and watched and listened; watched as her father pulled the rope tightly around her mother’s bare ankles; listened as his voice assaulted her, low and harsh, saying mean things, things she could only half make out. But Tom was waiting. And he called out to her. It was all she could do to lift herself from the gravel and tiptoe forwards, nearly tripping in the attempt to make no sound. Any distance would do, and she got some. Enough so that when her father lifted the door a meagre few inches, looked out from underneath, he couldn’t have known that she’d seen, that she’d heard.
“Esther? Why are you still outside?” He didn’t even sound scared, or sorry, or – or anything other than angry. She walked quickly over to where Tom waited. “Time for your friend to go” my father’s voice growled across to where we stood.
“What’s up with your dad” Tom muttered as he walked away, before looking back and giving me a nervous wave.
Now, Esther walked over to the table and handed the cold glass to her sister, who took it and drank thirstily, a creamy smear on her cheek. It was late, dark. Their parents would have come in by this time usually. This was the second time, though, Esther remembered, that her mother had not made the dinner. It was getting worse. She sat at the table and watched Aria as she finished eating, kicking her legs happily beneath the table.
Two more hours passed and Aria was irritable, tired, bouncing on top of her bed whilst refusing to get below the covers. Esther pleaded with her, tried to placate her by telling her their mother had come in to tell them she and daddy would play a little longer and not to worry. It wasn’t true, but Esther needed to get Aria to sleep so she could think what to do.
“Please let me put you to bed. Mummy will put you to bed tomorrow, Aria” Esther said, her limbs aching with tension. The doll perched on Aria’s desk seemed to Esther to smirk at their naivety. When, finally, Aria slept, Esther stayed a moment longer in her crouched position beside the bed. She listened to the light breathing as it slowed to a deeper sleep before standing and bending to kiss her sister lightly on the forehead. She made her way out of the little pink room, its nightlight a white gold star in the far corner.
Esther stood on the dark, empty landing. Silence in the house never used to feel this way. It used to be peaceful, an aura of rest and love about the place, the happy energy from laughter in front of the television or chatter over dinner still lingering. Now it was void of emotion, ominous, hostile. She walked slowly to the banister and down the steps. The familiar soft pile of the carpet beneath her tread did not ignite in her the feelings of safety and homeliness they always had.
She walked back into the kitchen. A street lamp cast an eerie glow across the room and her eyes settled on the plate with its congealed yellow remains looking up at her and the glass, still on the table, and she moved on autopilot, taking them to the sink, pouring water into the crusting dish. A memory of her parents smiling and laughing came to her as she stood there, rooted to the spot. She smiled as it played out in her mind. Her father, singing one of his fishing songs and prodding her mother playfully with a fish hook; her mother, batting at him with the dishcloth to keep him away. But Esther’s smile faltered. Was it playful? Really? She sighed as she thought of her mother, how she didn’t like her husband to hold her when he came back from the dock, the stink of fish was too strong, she said, the hooks made her feel vulnerable. She always said she wished he’d stop fishing, that she wanted to move to the city, close to her brother, where the smells were always changing, and where the fish smell rarely was.
Esther swallowed; hot tears splashed her collarbone as she opened the ugly metal box that had its place beside the wellingtons lined up by the back door. The smell of fish and death hit her and she stifled a sob.
It was cold outside. Briefly she thought of her coat; her tears chilled her cheeks. The dark house seemed to mock her or dare her as she gripped the hook tighter. And then everything around her moved, people – there were people running up towards her. Sirens screamed through the streets and as she turned she was momentarily blinded by the blues and purples and reds of car lights.
“Esther!” Aria. Esther turned back to see her sister, small and sleep nuzzled and scared. She stood in her slippers on the gravel, the back door wide open, the wind picking up her hair as she shivered and rubbed at her eyes.
“Come this way, girls. It’s alright, come out of the way” men in uniforms called to them. Aria ran to her sister. Tom bounded towards them, held out his hands to steer them back away from the garage.
“I heard something. Before. I had to call someone” said Tom. The garage door opened.
The man walked out, slow, too slow, like a walking dead man. His face was blank. The eyes held nothing. Almost black holes shining like pebbles on a beach at night. A crumpled figure lay in the darkened space, set back from the door. Horrified realisation coursed through Esther’s being. Then sheer terror, disbelief, consumed her as her eyes widened and her breath came in short shudders. Because there, behind her father, her mother stood. From the depths of his shadow she looked out with eyes that screamed in pain into those of her daughter’s. Her neck was bent, her mouth ripped, blood thick and darkly leaking, the sockets around her petrified eyes the blue-white of bruised china. The lips moved slowly and Esther followed them. And then she was gone.
The men were pressing blankets around the girls. Tom’s brow furrowed as he loosened Esther’s grip on the cold metal hook, checking the depth of the gouges it had made in her clenched palm. Esther stared after her father as they led him away. A calm descended on her.
“What’s that?” One of the men turned to Esther. She reached to hug her sister closer, and turned her still porcelain gaze his way.
“The city” she repeated. “My mother’s brother will take us. We’ll go to the city.”