Ah, writing challenges, those silver-tongued and snake-hipped sirens that I find myself unable to resist! One such bright and shiny thing at the moment is the wonderful #10WeeksOfHorror challenge. The original post explaining the concept can be found here, at the oasis that is the Prose Before Ho Hos blog (DISPATCHES FROM THE MAN CAVE OF WRITERLY AWESOMENESS!), but essentially it involves being inspired by 10 writing prompts posted in the 10 weeks prior to Halloween (Halloween! Whoop Whoop! HALLOWEEN!). If you haven’t already, I’d thoroughly recommend heading over that way to take a look at the awesome poetry and prose the challenge has inspired so far. As I write this, we’re halfway through the challenge, and the following story owes its existence to the prompt Creepy Kids. I’d like to thank the splendid Jessica West (@West1Jess), who I’d venture is something of a silver-tongued, snake-hipped siren herself, for kindly bending the laws of time a little with the submission deadline.
Incidentally, all of the prompts are nefarious variations on the 12 Days Of Christmas song (5 Creepy Kids as opposed to 5 Gold Rings etc) and, given they’re counting down to Halloween (I’m excited about Halloween, have I mentioned that?), they come across almost as a strange, dark reflection of the original song, a kind of evil twin, if you will, which considering what you’re hopefully about to read, seems somehow apt …
Of all the games that Liam had played in his nine years, hide and seek was his very favourite. Even now, although it was dark, and he could hear more murmurs of thunder approaching the house, he could feel the excitement of the game running through him, feel his heart beat faster, feel his palm grow damp around the neck of the broken bottle he held.
He thrust it into a shadowed corner, disappointed when the sharp, jagged edges found nothing but empty air. He much preferred to be seeking rather than hiding, but the game seemed to have lasted a long time, and he and his sister seemed to be getting nowhere. He supposed that two seekers against one hider wasn’t fair, but Lauren had said that, as she was older than him – almost by two minutes – that made her the grown up and she could change the rules of the game if she wanted.
He could hear her upstairs, stamping about, opening doors and cupboards, breaking things. Sometimes he heard her singing, songs from that boy-band that she had all the posters of on her bedroom wall. Her singing wasn’t very good, but Liam loved his sister, and would never tell her that. He wouldn’t dare.
She had the carving knife. Liam had wanted it, but again Lauren had told him that she was the eldest, she was in charge, and that if he wanted to play then he’d have to use the bottle. He’d struggled to smash it properly though, thumping it uselessly against the kitchen worktop, until Lauren had taken it from him and shattered the base upon the stone steps outside the front door.
‘Be careful,’ she’d said as she handed him the weapon. ‘There’s just the two of us, remember.’
He’d nodded, understanding. Just the two of them, looking after each other, just like always. He still remembered the other one, though, had thin, hazy memories of a third, stuttering heartbeat with them in their mother’s tummy, an interloper in their living cradle. Their brother had been much smaller than either of them, less developed, with barely a scrap of mind to him, no thoughts, just a shallow puddle of feelings cased in soft bone. His confused, numbed tangle of emotions had been an unwelcome ghost on the secret frequency between Liam and Lauren, a kind of idiot static crackling through their line of communication. He’d been a spindly little thing as well, Liam recalled, a blind shape sheathed in thin, vein-webbed skin that, as Lauren had promised, even the twins’ tiny fingers could puncture and tear.
Lauren claimed to remember it all, but Liam remembered enough. Their mother had told people she’d lost their sibling – Liam had heard her say as much, back when he was a newborn himself, and she’d felt that she could talk freely. Lost. That was how she’d phrased it, talking to someone else in the hospital while Liam nestled into the soft warmth of her breasts, pretending to be asleep but listening to every word. Lost, as though their brother had been a cluster of car keys instead of a cluster of cells, and that had always struck Liam as strange, because she hadn’t lost him at all. The dismantled tatters of him had emerged from her minutes after the twin’s own sudden arrival into the world.
Being outside had felt very different to being in their mother’s tummy, too bright and too cold, a frightening tide of colours and sounds. There were green sheets and silver lights where there had been only a rich, watery dark, and loud voices where there had only been the rush of blood and the soothing throb of his and Lauren’s pulses. There had been screams. Yes, their brother had shrieked as the last of him was unravelled, but that had been a been a kind of confused, scared echo on the twins’ mental wavelength, nothing like the noises that had welcomed them into the world, their own spidery wails and the thick, hoarse cries that shuddered from their mother when she saw their sibling.
They were real screams, long howls that splintered in the air, spilling pain and horror and distress from the cracks. The kind of screams he’d heard tonight.
He stepped quietly into the dining room. There was nowhere to hide in here, not really, not except under the wide wooden table. He crouched, not near enough so that anyone hiding under there could reach out and clutch at him, and angled the glass teeth of the bottle into the darkness beneath. Through the wide window of the dining room he saw the lightning flash, as if the clouds were taking snapshots of the surrounding countryside. For a moment he thought he saw a trembling shape huddled back near one of the legs and he raised the bottle, ready to jab it forward, but the shape faded with the lightning, and he breathed again. The space beneath the table was empty. She wasn’t there.
He stood. He could hear Lauren on the landing, hear the stairs creak as she started down them. She must have finished her search, and she would have called out if she’d found the hider, if only to let him know that she’d won the game. But she hadn’t called out, and that meant that he might still win for once. The doors and windows were all locked, and Lauren hadn’t even told him where she’d hidden the keys, and there was no way out of the house until the game was over. Lauren hadn’t found her upstairs, and he’d searched almost everywhere down here, which meant that there was only one room where the hider could be. He could do this. He could still win.
The thunder growled as he entered the living room. The storm was getting closer, he thought, just like him. The carpet squished beneath his shoes as he moved forward. He should have known that this was where she’d be. This was where the game had begun tonight. He should have known that she’d come back here.
‘Liam!’ Lauren was shouting. She sounded like she was at the bottom of the stairs now. ‘Liam, where are you?’
He didn’t answer. He was so close now. He kept looking down at his feet, navigating a silent path between the dark, wet islands on the carpet. The first teardrops of rain had begun to fall, ticking against the windowpane. He glanced that way and saw smeared, bloody handprints on the glass, where she’d tried to escape. As he drew nearer to the sofa, he thought he could hear her breathing.
Somewhere behind him, in another room, he could hear Lauren swinging open doors, hear the metallic swish of loops on a rail as she pulled curtains aside, checking all the places he’d already checked, as if she thought he wasn’t any good at the game. He’d show her. He was going to be the winner.
Another flicker of lightning showed him the shape behind the sofa, not his imagination this time. She probably thought she was well hidden, that she was playing the game well, but Liam could see one of her hands, trembling, the thin fingers twitching. She looked like she was wearing a red glove.
‘Liam!’ Lauren yelled again. She sounded close now, like she was in the dining room, but she was too late. He had won.
He moved closer to the shape behind the sofa, bringing the glassy fangs of the bottle upwards to strike. He stood in front of her, stepping over his father’s outstretched legs to do so.
‘Found you, Mum.’ he said.
She looked up at him through the wet strands of her hair, and he thought that her eyes looked strange, too dark somehow, too flat, like the eyes of the teddy bears in Lauren’s room. It was if something was missing from them now, nothing left but the same murky void that he’d found in his brother, no thoughts, just feelings. Lauren had managed to catch her a few times in the tummy with the carving knife, but looking at her now, with her empty eyes and her slim, white arm draped across their dead father’s chest, Liam started to understand that she was hurt in some other way, some way that he couldn’t quite see, some kind of pain that even a kiss couldn’t make better. It made him feel a little sad. He had wanted her to enjoy the game as much as him, right to the very end.
He raised the bottle, hesitating when she spoke.
‘Liam …’ Her voice sounded heavy, too wet, as if she were breaking her own rules and talking with her mouth full. Her bloody hand shook as she brought it up. Her fingers reached for the bottle and he thought she was going to try and snatch it from him, but instead her fingertips merely brushed the broken, jagged edges.
‘Sharp, my love …’ she said thickly. ‘… careful, don’t … cut yourself …’
And there it was again, that light in her eyes that he knew so well, the one he’d always craved when knees were scraped and heads were bumped, when gold stars at school needed an approving smile or lullabies needed to be sung. That light, that sparkle. It made her eyes shine, made them glow as bright as cat’s eyes in the shadows of the living room, and so that was where he aimed the shattered teeth of the bottle, again and again.
When it was done, he heard Lauren’s voice behind him. ‘Oh,’ she said, disappointed. ‘You won.’
He turned. She was standing in the doorway to the living room, the carving knife still in her hand. Lightning painted her pale features paler for a moment, and less than a heartbeat later the thunder boomed. The storm was right on top of them, he thought.
He looked down at the bottle, its fangs glistening now. The shape of it looked different, some of the teeth shattered or lost. He knew that if he glanced at the wet wreckage of his mother’s face he would find them, but he didn’t look. He didn’t have to. He knew he’d see it forever.
He threw the bottle aside. It thumped to the carpet and rolled away into the shadows.
‘I want to go outside.’ he said. Suddenly his face felt too hot and sticky and all he wanted was the rain on his skin, the cold on his face. ‘Where are the keys?’
‘You can’t go, not yet.’ Lauren told him, her smooth forehead creasing into a little frown. ‘The game isn’t over.’
He shook his head and made a small gesture at their parents, but he didn’t look at them. Suddenly he didn’t feel like he could do that. ‘Of course it is. There’s no-one left to seek. I won.’
‘I’m changing the rules again,’ Lauren said, stepping forward. ‘If you want to go outside, now you have to look for the keys.’
The thunder spoke just before he did. ‘And what about you? What will be you be doing?’
‘I’ll be seeking you, of course.’ she said brightly, and he realised that while he had thrown the broken bottle aside, his sister still held the carving knife.
‘Tag, Liam.’ she smiled. ‘You’re it.’