The Hanged Girl

A gothic horror story set in the modern day, building upon local ghost stories about a long dead girl and a potential pact with darkness and how this impacts on a single mother and her daughter new to the community.

 

Prelude

Little Lottie
In love with the devil
Baying at the moon
Little Lottie
Bride of night
Sweet Sixteen in June
Little Lottie’s
Fragile lifespan
Ending far too soon

With all the bravado of the young they climbed up the hill towards the tree, singing the local nursery rhyme as though it were a talisman. Jacob, ever the clown, changed the words on the second attempt to something far cruder and Nathan pushed him, sending him tumbling down the hill to the bottom again.

“Hey!” Jacob called as he fell.

“Serves you right,” said Celia, the self-appointed leader of the trio, doing her bit for the power of girls in the company of adolescent men.

Nathan laughed and they continued to the top of the hill, hearing their fallen friend scrambling behind them.

Once they were all together again they stood solemn for a moment, turning to look at the horizon behind them. Far in the distance twilight trembled before its descent and retreat to the blackness of night. Clouds scattered the skyline, threatening to hide many of the evening stars. Far below the homestead was dark, and empty as it had been for years.

None of the teenagers knew when the house had last been inhabited. In their living memory they could not recall a new owner and they tended to believe that it had remained empty since the tragedy of little Carlotta, she of the nursery song, over thirty years previously. The scandal and the tragedy and the ongoing mystery had fuelled many a campfire ghost story even to this day.

Jacob was in a mood for retribution. He whispered darkly in Celia’s ear, “Can you feel her here, hanging upside down, hanging from the tree?”

“Don’t be a child!” Celia replied, to hide her own fears as they crept up upon her, using the most insulting retort it is possible to say to an adolescent boy.

Jacob was miffed and unrepentant. He reached for a low hanging branch of the tree and ran its pointy end up her back.

“Now do you feel her?” he asked, his voice deliberately sibilant.

She jumped despite herself, turning round, and seeing the branch in the boy’s hands.

“You little prick!” she accused. Jacob laughed and her fury and his amusement caught them still for a moment, each wondering what the next move would be.

“Hey guys!” Nathan said, his voice quivering slightly.

“Don’t even start!” Celia warned, still looking directly at Jacob. The two had fallen into a staring contest and neither were in the mood to lose.

“No, guys, really!” Nathan said more insistent.

“What is it?” Celia demanded through gritted teeth, still not breaking eye contact, and inwardly telling herself she should have known better than to come here with these youngsters. Maybe if she had come with Jonathan, the older boy in year 12, it would have been an entirely other and more satisfying experience….

‘’A light went on in the house!” Nathan cried, his voice betraying the dismay at something the whole town would have thought of as an impossibility. The Hanged Girl’s house as it was called had remained dark forever it seemed. The thought of a new owner was beyond anyone’s imagination unless, of course, they were in a mood to entertain the many ghost stories about the house and little Lottie at the tree. But he didn’t believe them, no-one did really, so who or what had turned the light on in the house?

Jacob and Celia gave up their battle and turned to look. Sure enough, down the hill and in the middle distance, the big house stood silent and dark as ever, save for a light in the attic area at the very top. The brightness and incongruity of the light even being there and its high-placed position made the cursed house look rather like a lighthouse beacon. But a beacon to what?

Just as they were starting to process this unexpected turn of events, they heard the backdoor at the bottom of the house open and close and they could discern a large, shadowy figure emerging into the half-light. It looked like a man, not a little girl ghost or even the wraith that Lottie’s equally tragic mother might have formed, but nevertheless the figure instilled a form of chill and disquiet that was entirely new to the teenagers.

“Hello?” a male voice half called, half bellowed out wards them.

“It’s the devil!” Nathan cried, ever the most imaginative and sensitive of the trio. But for the moment the others were more inclined to agree than deride. In the half-light, with an unanticipated extra to their little journey, they felt vulnerable to all manner of darkness in the night.

As one again they scrambled over the top of the hill and down to the boundaries of the property to escape. As they ran Celia was sure she heard the footsteps of the man hurriedly following, but when they finally navigated the fence below and reached the apparent safety of the road nearby, she chanced a look behind her and saw nothing.

Nothing but the tree at the top of the hill, swaying in a wind that had suddenly picked up as they ran, the noise of its branches and leaves sounding very much like a devil chasing them in the night.

One

By late afternoon the muscles along Lisa’s back were starting to ache from the exertion. There were only so many boxes you could unpack before it caught up with you. She’d been working like a machine determined to have unpacked at least the basic necessities before nightfall, and somewhere along the way the definition of ‘necessity’ had expanded to mean practically everything. As she stretched her arms above and behind her to loosen the tension she laughed inwardly at her own obsessive and relentless nature.

‘Enough is never enough,’ she muttered, under her breath, a personal motto, one of many.

‘What’s that?” her daughter Mandy asked as she passed by the bathroom, carrying her own bounty to her bedroom to unpack.

Lisa looked up with mild irritation, more at herself than her daughter, as she hadn’t meant to speak aloud. Sometimes she did just that, though, at inconvenient moments and sometimes at embarrassing ones. Although she had her daughter, her loneliness since her marriage break up was such that she often found herself talking as though there was someone to listen, and of course, there so rarely was.

‘Nothing,’ she responded, shaking her head, ‘Just aching a bit from the work. How is your room going?”

Mandy frowned slightly. She knew her mother asked because they were polar opposites on most things, and this need to get things done quickly was but the tip of the iceberg. When unpacking for a home move Lisa would be like a robot, relentless, box by box, making decisions on where things would be placed rapidly and with little real consideration. There would always be time to re-arrange later, for the moment it was just an imperative to get rid of the boxes and get it done.

In comparison, Mandy could dwell over items found in boxes which displayed items long forgotten, and sit for many moments contemplating the memories that such discoveries evoked. And she often put away little – Lisa knew if she ventured down the hallway to Mandy’s room now little use would yet have been made of the extensive built-in robes the room afforded. Everything would be strewn around the floor awaiting an eventual home.

Lisa did not want to be annoyed by her daughter. Deep down she realised it was a character trait that was just different from hers, not better or worse. It may well prove to be the trait that transformed into some kind of talent or special intelligence. Mandy had patience, where Lisa had little. Perhaps that was just the balance of things.

‘Slowly,” Mandy admitted into the silence, “But I’m getting there. Would you like me to make you a cup of tea?”

A wonderful idea! Lisa needed an excuse for a break, or her body did at any rate, and tea was something even the ponderous teenager could not do slowly. It seemed the perfect antidote for the potential argument that hung in the hot, still afternoon air.

‘Yes please,’ Lisa said, “That would be lovely.’

Mandy smiled and bobbed her head, her dark straight hair lapping her shoulders. The dark hair was the last remaining remnant of a period of goth obsession for her daughter. Happily she no longer wore the over-emphasised moon like makeup, nor listened to the same dirgy, dark music. She’d outgrown that quickly, but even Lisa had to admit the darker hair colour suited her pale skin more than the light red of her natural colouring. So the dark hair had stayed and sanity and taste had returned.

Little mercies were better than none – another of Lisa’s mottos.

After a few moments the tea had not materialised. Lisa found herself unable to stop unpacking another box. A vague irritation at her own need coalesced into internal questioning of her daughter. What could possibly be taking her so long? Then she heard the sound of a kettle coming close to the boil and settled fora moment.

More moments passed without the sound of the water being fed to the teapot. Lisa stopped her unpacking to consider. Had she even found the teapot when she was unpacking in the kitchen earlier? Could Mandy be seeking it out now? And if so, had she missed one of the boxes marked ‘kitchen’ or had the removalists put it in the wrong room, destroying her perfect order as they do often did in their haste to just unload and be gone?

Nothing professional in professional anymore, she mused.

‘Hey mum!’ Mandy called out from the kitchen, and Lisa expected any moment to be asked about the teapot whereabouts. “You know that house just down the road from here, the supposedly empty one, like for years?”

Lisa hadn’t expected that. She’d heard about the house and the hill and the unfortunate girl of many, many years ago. The real estate agent had told her – full disclosure she called it, as though what happened in a neighbour’s house really mattered to the property values of the other houses surrounding it. Well, perhaps it did, perhaps the urban myths and tragedy did permeate real estate values that much. Thankfully she was renting, so it wasn’t really her concern. And given that, perhaps the agent just liked to gossip and that was all.
‘Yes,’ Lisa called back and stopped herself from asking where the tea was. They were both tired and the arguments that arose from her daughter’s tendency to procrastinate were too common and too inflammable for such an afternoon. Lisa wanted to finalise most of the unpacking and have a quiet dinner with her daughter, without such mother-daughter stress.

‘I don’t think it’s empty anymore!” Mandy continued, ‘I can see a man in the backyard, doing some gardening!’

The curiosity made Lisa leave the bathroom and join her daughter in the kitchen. She was leaning out the kitchen window, and Lisa was shorter than her daughter – girl got her height from her father, lucky thing – so she really had to stretch up on her tip toes to see what Mandy was seeing. But as she did so she realised the stretch was perfect for her back, so sometimes the universe was kind.

Sure enough there was a man hard at work trimming rose bushes along the side of the big house. It was a fair way down the street from them, sitting like a lone sentinel with the eerie hill at the zenith of its backyard. No other houses had been built inbetween, on either side. It was as though the community felt the house needed distance from other dwellings. Or it could be, given its size and general majesty, that it had once been the home of wealth and community power, and its isolation was a choice of former owners rather than an aversion from others.

In any case they could just see the man, and pondered his presence in silence. Lisa was thinking that it was good to see someone in this community that obviously wasn’t superstitious after all. Mandy was wondering if the man had a son around her age. Both peered in happy contemplation, confident their spying would go unseen.

But then the man stood, turned, and looked directly back at them, almost as though he had sensed their contemplation from afar. It had a strange, disturbing affect, like unfamiliar power. From this distance his expression was unreadable, but they were both instantly in no doubt he had indeed sensed and seen them. Whether by surprise or some deeper instinct, both jumped back, in fright, like guilty schoolchildren. For a moment they looked at each other in a kind of horrified surprise, and then both laughed at the absurdity of their reactions.

‘Mustn’t get spooked by the neighbours,’ Lisa said finally, as their laughter settled, and she spontaneously hugged her daughter, who returned the hug. And for both this was with some surprise, because such affection was unusual between them, and neither really knew why.

Two

It’s good to be thrown in at the deep end, Lisa told herself silently, that way you learn to swim so much more quickly.

The cause of her reverie was being left alone to mind the shop by her far more experienced colleague only on the second day of her new job. Stacey, the more experienced bookstore sales girl was also more seasoned when it came to town affairs it seemed, of the romantic kind. She dazzled Lisa with a monologue of herculean length about her latest ‘great love’ and how she just ‘had to see him today to make sure he wasn’t playing up with that bitch Teresa’ and how that could only possibly be achieved by ‘ sneaking out at lunchtime and going down to her gang’s favourite cafe in Middle Street’.

Lunchtime being, of course, the most likely time for the illicit rendezvous in Stacey’s mind. The innocence – or perhaps roe properly naiveté – of that was mildly beguiling to Lisa, so much so that she unfortunately found herself agreeing to mind the shop alone over the busiest period of the day. Lunchtime was when all the office and other workers emerged to shop and therefore when they were most likely to come in and actually buy something. And expect service, expect a salesperson who truly knew what she was doing, or where the various types of books could be found.

Lisa watched the door nervously, traitorously wishing every passerby would do exactly that – pass by. And her darker will seemed to be working quite well. It was a bright, sunny day and perhaps that is not the ideal day for book shopping. For whatever reason it was quieter than the day before, at least so far, and she was grateful for that. Yesterday she had shadowed Stacey like a little lost lamb, watching her guide buyers to books, extol their virtues, encourage sales, then ring them up on the cash register and fold them in bags to be taken away. For a silly girl she was quite accomplished at that, making Lisa feel, at twice her age at last, like a ridiculous novice.

She could castigate herself quite efficiently some other time. For the moment other needs were more pressing and she feverishly reminded herself of the various book categories and where they were placed in the store – popular fiction near the front, also with new release books; crime and true crime to the left; romance and historical fiction to the right. Down the back there were biographies, non fiction and some self-help and spiritual fare. Literature, proper literature, being less popular than popular, was also down near the back, a hallowed area near the hallway that led to the back office. Lisa was not sure what that said about the state of literature these days, or the state of education, and the latter made her worry briefly for Mandy. What did they teach these days in school?

As her mind wandered to such disturbing thoughts an even more disturbing thing occurred. The tinkling bell at the doorway which announced someone coming in chimed lightly and far too happily for Lisa’s taste. She looked sharply to the door, dreading a shopper who might want to do anything more than browse.

Please just be looking, she thought, considering how clumsy she felt with the cash register and sales processes. Stacey’s induction had left a lot to be desired and the bookstore owner, Gavin, did not bother himself with such matters and rarely even deigned to visit his store himself. For a bookstore owner he seemed singularly uninterested in books. But then something made Lisa suspect he was interested in very little in actual fact, for interest would require energy, and he seemed to have so little of that overall.

Coming in from the bright sunlight at first the figure seemed like a dark shadow to her. As her eyes adjusted she found herself staring at a man who was returning her gaze with some amusement. She blushed, just like a school girl, and he laughed lightly, walking straight up to the counter, filling her with awe and dread.

The man, who looked like he was around her age or slightly older, was very tall, with dark hair and very dark eyes – brown so deep they were almost black, but she noticed light specks of gold in the irises to help distinguish them from the pupils. She found herself slightly mesmerised. She’d never seen eyes quite like those before.

If the man felt this was intrusive he didn’t show it. Perhaps he was used to his own impact. He held out a strong-looking hand to her in a familiar gesture of welcome. She took it automatically and shook, ever polite.

‘I think we are neighbours,’ he said, ‘I saw you as I passed the shop and had to come in to see if I was right.’

A brief memory of the man in the garden flowed through her and she made instant calculations. Yes, the build was the same. But she asked, ‘Where do you live?”

‘No 6 Mercy Lane,’ he replied, “And yes, I know, it’s that house. I’ve heard all about it. The realtor was obsessed with it when she sold me the place. It was almost like she wanted to cruel the sale for herself.’

He laughed to himself and then continued, ‘And you are No 4 I think, you and your daughter?”

‘That’s right,’ Lisa replied, her suspicions confirmed, and not sure whether she was happy about this or not. This man was unsettling, but perhaps it was just the threat he might actually want to buy something that was vexing her.

Or perhaps it is just that he is too handsome….kind of in that way her former husband had been too handsome.

‘So does it worry you to have such close proximity to infamy?’ he asked, amused still by some internal reverie.

‘The house, or you?” She found herself flirting slightly, surprising herself.

He chuckled, “Possibly both, but I meant the house.’

‘Well then, no. I’m not superstitious.’ Lisa replied.

‘Aren’t you?” he asked, ‘How very sensible of you. For me, I love a mystery and a bit of history. It was part of the attraction in some ghoulish way.’

She shivered. “Well, well,’ she said.

‘But only a small part,’ he said, ‘the house and land are very fine, and former inhabitants are only that. Former. I’ve lived in places with even more colourful history. I find it tends to stay in the past.’

‘That’s comforting,’ Lisa replied, “You wouldn’t want it to repeat. Not something like that.’

‘No indeed, life is always about progress, about the next step in the journey, the past is past, what point is there in it anymore?’ he agreed, then started to turn to go. Good, he was only popping in to say hello, not to buy. ‘In any case, it will be nice to be neighbours. You and your daughter must come over to dinner some time. I’m actually quite a good cook.’

‘How could we refuse then?’ Lisa asked, finding herself noticing the strength of his build and the softness of his voice, even despite herself.

‘Indeed,’ he agreed, ‘How could you?’

He turned on his heel and she thought she could hear him chuckle again under his breath. A moment later he turned back, shaking his head.

‘Oh, I should have introduced myself,’ he said, ‘How rude of me. My name is Damien Peterson.’

‘Pleased to meet you,’ Lisa replied, ‘I’m Lisa, Lisa Reynolds.’

‘And a pleasure to meet you too, Lisa,’ he said, nodding as though to affirm his claim. He turned again, and seconds later he was gone, and she was once more blessedly alone in the shop.

Three

‘Sheesh!’ Susan exclaimed ,almost spilling her coffee, ‘I didn’t realise you’d move into that street, and so close to that house!’

It was Saturday morning, the first weekend after her first week on the new job, and Lisa finally had a chance to catch up with her friend who had moved to this country town following University in Sydney and who had extolled its virtues to her as an ‘oasis of calm after the drama of the past few years for you’. The drama of course meaning the divorce, primarily, but also the way the emotions laid to waste her once flourishing career as a bureaucrat. She had been on the rise as a manager with senior executive roles in close sight. Now she was a salesperson at a bookstore.

Life never takes you where you expect, she thought, and now I’m here. I’m here too.

Lisa had always wondered why Susan came here, and even more why she remained. She was more a city girl, surely, more fire in her belly than this? But to hear Susan tell it there were many more interesting stories in a country town like this, almost large enough to be a small city. Just enough local intrigue and incestuous closeness to make for scandal and just enough breadth and size to make even local politics have some flavour.

Susan had originally come here to cut her journalist teeth in a less competitive market and then she’d just stayed. She’d tell you it was for the town itself, but Lisa had never been sure. Still, when she suggested it as a new start, albeit one that Lisa thought of as transitional only, it had made some sense. Lisa’s funds were not great, and she did need to get away from Sydney. All in all it had seemed a sensible move for a year, maybe two, and Susan was here. Her best friend really, and following the divorce it seemed she had far fewer of those than she had thought.

‘Well, it was the best value. Far bigger than the other places and in better condition,’ Lisa explained.

‘Because no-one will live in that street?’ Susan laughed.

‘It is fairly empty from what I can tell,’ Lisa agreed, ‘But we do have a new neighbour it seems, just moved in also. To that house.’

‘Sheesh” Susan said again, “Wonders will never cease!”

‘So tell me, ‘Lisa demanded, half friendly and half frustrated, ‘What is it about that house and that street? Given you didn’t give me a warning or anything and the realtor said all sorts of things about death at No 6 and a girl as part of her disclosure but kept saying she didn’t know the details. I gathered it was rather horrible and that the town still holds views about it, making it infamous, but I’m short on the facts really.’

‘I call bullshit on your realtor,’ Susan said, “Everyone round here knows about the Hanged Girl. Saddest, strangest thing the town has seen, at least as long as most living memories tell it. Happened more than thirty years ago, but the memories in the town remain fresh. Young girl living with her uncle. Her parents had died and the girl had come her to live with her mother’s brother. Apparently he was really wild and strange, which makes you wonder about the whole family really, and genetic madness.  But of course the myth of the town is more florid than that! Lots of talk they were into dark things, rituals and the like, all that rubbish. But something odd was going on there, though something far more seamy and prosaic I’d bet. One day the uncle just disappeared and up on the tree at the back of the yard, up that hill, the girl was found hanging.’

‘She was hanged?’

‘Not exactly, she was hanging upside down, with her throat cut, though no blood to be seen, like she’d been killed and drained and then hung. But in the strangest way. Her arms were tied behind her back, and one of her legs was sort of crossed against the other, held fast by rope. Someone said it was like a tarot card, one called The Hanged Man. They said that meant sacrifice, so you can just imagine what impact that had. Town went wild. Some said the uncle killed her then left town, others said he was dead also, they just hadn’t found the body. Some even said the devil came and literally took him away.’

‘Wow,’ said Lisa, ‘People can be so imaginative.’

‘Small town,’ Susan agreed, ‘In any case, that kind of crime, with no reasonable explanation of guilt party to be sure of, caused a local myth to arise. They say the house is haunted by her, and up at the tree too. No-one has lived there since.’

‘Till now,’ Lisa commented.

‘Till now,’ Susan repeated, in deep tones that meant to be theatrical and ultimately funny. Both women laughed.

‘Glad to know there will be another sensible person in the street then,’ Lisa said, thinking of Damien and his visit to her shop.

‘Yes but be careful,’ Susan replied, sobering somewhat and looking down into her coffee.

‘You don’t seriously think the place is haunted?’ Lisa asked, shocked by this turn in her friend’s nature.

‘No, no! of course not. It’s not that. It’s…small town mentality. This place might be close to a city in size these days, but its culture is still very..provincial.. shall we say? People living in that street…I think others might be suspicious of you. I wish you’d said where you were looking there, I’d have warned you.’

‘If you don’t know a question exists, you don’t ask. But do you really think people will treat us badly?” Lisa asked, horrified.

‘Perhaps. Probably not you, though some might speculate whether you are some witch or something I suppose. It’s more Mandy I’m concerned for. You can recall what the later years of school were like, how horrible adolescent girls can be to each other?”

Lisa remembered. She and Susan had flown reasonably under the radar at school and missed the worst of the bullying, but they’d witnessed it. Anyone a bit different was always a target. And Mandy was already a bit different, a bit out of sorts since the divorce. What would her schoolmates make of that from a girl who lived so close to the Hanged Girl’s place?

‘Jesus,’ Lisa muttered, half under her breath and then continued, ‘It might already have started actually. She started school mid-week and she said the others were a bit strange, a bit hostile. I put it down to being the new girl, nothing more.’

Susan reached out and put her handover her friend’s hand, feeling guilty for raising the shadow in the first place.

‘Hopefully that’s all it is,’ she said, ‘After all, all the rest of the myth, it’s just ridiculous.’

Four

‘I like your raven hair,’ the blonde girl said to Mandy, her voice very sweet but with the threat of something else beneath it.

They were in the school cafeteria, and it was the beginning of Mandy’s second week at school. The week before most of the others had given her a wide berth, and following some failed attempts to join in conversations in class breaks,  she’d retreated into a corner of the cafeteria with a book to eat her lunch and read.

But now one of the more popular girls, the blonde and rather precise Jasmine, was standing before her, holding her lunch tray in front of her as though deciding whether to place it at the table and join Mandy. Behind her a couple of less stellar looking girls lingered, waiting to take the cue from their more glamorous leader.

Mandy looked up at her, wary but hopeful.

‘Thank you,’ she said simply and waited. She’d noticed Jasmine on day one, of course.  You always notice the popular ones, the ones with the boys preening around them, the one that others followed.  Why did every school have one, and why were they always blonde? Were they cloned and farmed out in equal measure as some sort of social experiment, like the Stepford Wives, but at school?  Perhaps they were sent to teach everyone a valuable early lesson – there would always be those above you, heights you could not scale dreams you could not reach. Aim lower and avoid disappointment.

‘Suits a witch,’ Jasmine continued and the gormless girls behind her giggled in unison.

‘I’m not a witch,’ Mandy said, thinking back to her goth phase about a year ago when she would have been flattered by the association.  Now it just felt dangerous and she wasn’t sure why.

Jasmine snorted mildly. ‘Pity,’ she said, ‘Would have made you more interesting.  But nothing interesting every happens around here.’

And with that she turned on her heel and started to stalk away, her followers following, of course.  Leaving Mandy alone again.  She watched them walk to a table filled with more of the popular ones, and saw how even they moved to give Jasmine space, while her followers did their best to find room to sit.  Social hierarchy played out before her eyes.  Her father would have  been able to analyse and dissect this and in a way that was amusing and comforting all at once. He’d have given her the weaponry of understanding and the timing for the perfectly applied retort or response. But he was gone.  He didn’t love them anymore, and that was lost to her.

A cold, sharp pain flooded through her and she gasped slightly, and at that moment Jasmine eyed her keenly and then nodded to herself and said something to the throng, who all turned and gazed at her, smirking.

It wasn’t nice, whatever she said.  And their gaze was too much.  Mandy collected her book and bag, leaving her half eaten lunch and moved to fee the cafeteria.  To do so she had to pass them, there was no other way out.  She remembered her father talking of Dante’s dictum that the only way out was through.  But that was in hell.  Still, the allegory applied really, school being one of the lower circles no doubt.

As she passed them there was still laughter and she wondered how she would be able to be in class with any of them later.  It was wrong to flee, it was weak, but she felt so insubstantial these days. Not even a paper ache girl – too translucent, you could see right through her, just as this nasty clique could right now. All her confidence had fled when her father left them.  The world she had known proved a chimera and she was unsure of everything ever since. This new start hr mother promised was just a re-run of the past.  You can escape a town, but how do you escape yourself?

‘Wonder what she’d look like hanging from a tree?’ one of the boys asked within earshot. He somehow made it sound sickly sexual, like it was a scene from some pornography running in his feral little mind. She refused to look round to give him any satisfaction.

‘She’s already bloodless by the looks of things.’ That was Jasmine, her sweet voice like a viper.

Mandy didn’t understand it and didn’t care to; Jasmine’s observation was just the last thing she heard as she gained her temporary freedom by walking out to the hallway.  For a moment she stopped there, breathing heavy, eyes threatening to spill tears.

No, don’t cry, she thought, there have been enough tears, too many, too many.

School was going to be terrible, she could tell.  She could just tell.

Five

Lisa was concerned.  Mandy didn’t seem to want to talk about school.  And not wanting to talk about something – anything really – was not like Mandy.  She’d had problems at school before, in other locations and at other ages.  There seemed to be phases where schoolchildren had spurts of viciousness, and the internal politics of whose group you were in – or not in – were more labyrinthian than Machiavelli at times.  But before tis Mandy would wax lyrical about it all.  She was a contemplative girl who liked to share her thoughts.

But she wasn’t sharing now.

Any attempt to get her to talk about her experiences so far were greeted with the monosyllabic responses Lisa had heard other parents experience from their teenage children, but it was foreign territory in this home.  Still, a query of how the day had gone, or what the other students were like, or her teachers, elicited no more than an ‘okay’ or an ‘alright’, with the occasional extra generosity of a well thought out ‘I suppose’ or ‘I guess’ a few seconds later.

To Lisa this bought a sense of foreboding.  Generally Mandy fitted in with her peers.  She did ride the waves of schoolyard allegiances a bit, and she was never one of the popular ‘It crowd’ – being a bit too clever and bookish for that group and a little too un-coordinated with sport – but she was generally well liked overall.  Lisa suspected she was experiencing something different here, and she worried about her friend’s warning about how people responded to the street hey lived in and its sad, grisly history.  Could that shadow have fallen upon her so underserving daughter?

The only thing that seemed to rouse her from her general distance was the prospect of their dinner invitation at their neighbour’s house. If the street they lived in was the cause of problems for her at school it didn’t lessen her curiosity and excitement at the prospect of meeting the new neighbour.  Like Lisa, it seemed the very existence of an inhabitant at the house had given the whole thing an extra gloss of excitement.  What sort of man would live there in defiance of its history?

‘He seems a very balanced man,’ Lisa told Mandy the evening after she had met him at the bookstore.  Then when he quickly  followed through with the formal dinner invitation, via a lovely handwritten and embossed card he left in their mailbox a day later,  ‘and very polite’ was added to the initial assessment.

‘Did he talk about the history of his place?” Mandy asked, with the first traces of real life and interest in her eyes that Lisa had seen for days.

‘Not really, except to say that he considers the past is part of the past,’ she replied and Mandy looked slightly disappointed but not enough to dampen her excitement at their invitation.

It struck Lisa suddenly, as she saw her daughter fuss over her dress and makeup for the evening, that Mandy hadn’t yet really talked much about boys, and the absence of her father from her life now was probably another anchor to the male gender  gone for her.  It might be the prospect of a dinner with a man now held a kind of frisson for her that straddled both her slowly emerging womanhood and her loss of being daddy’s girl.  Not that daddy was around enough to really give her that sense in the first place though Lisa considered darkly.

‘I got a box of chocolates to take with us’ Lisa said, hovering near the fridge to take the offering out..

‘Not wine?’ Mandy asked, disappointed.

‘You are a bi young to be drinking wine on a school night,’ Lisa remarked, ‘And I wanted you to be part of whatever we brought to share.’

‘Genna drinks wine every evening with her family,’ Mandy commented, reflecting on her best friend from her last school.  Genna was a nice girl, but rather sophisticated with very ‘liberal’ parents.  Lisa wasn’t really sure she entirely approved, but the bond of the girls had been genuine and strong. She knew that Mandy missed Genna a great deal, and no amount of Skyping made up for real face to face contact.

‘Nevertheless,’ Lisa responded, ‘Chocolates will do.  We don’t really know our neighbour yet, so let’s take it a step at a time.’

If Mandy was frustrated it passed quickly. She smiled and nodded and fussed some more with her mascara, a girl excited for the evening ahead.

Six

For a reputedly haunted house, number 6 Mercy Lane was very beguiling indeed. The moment Damien opened the door to them Lisa and Mandy were literally flooded with a warm light from the hallway, seemingly reaching out into the early twilight haze like a welcoming embrace.

Damien also proved himself a host with great flourish and a kind of old school elan, bowing to them and bidding that they ‘enter my humble abode, dear friends’ which made Mandy giggle lightly as she crossed the threshold and he nodded, grateful, as Lisa handed him the box of chocolates.

Maddy’s laughter made him pause for a moment and regard her, a warmth sparking in his eyes.

‘So full of life,’ he said approvingly, the looked to Lisa, ‘You must be proud.’

Under normal circumstances Lisa might have been slightly bemused by this description of her often withdrawn and quiet child, but looking back to her in this moment, seeing her young face break into the broadest of smiles, she felt mixed emotions. Pride, yes, indeed, and dismay, but something else also ran underneath it all. Something that almost had a taste, like copper on the tongue, vague and even unpleasant in some indefinable way. But whatever this strange cocktail of conflicting emotions, reality rose above them all and Lisa could only marvel in the moment at how beautiful her daughter suddenly looked, basking as she did in the approval of their new, mysterious friend.

Careful, or she will get a crush, Lisa thought suddenly, and looked back at Damien with slight horror, seeing him meet her daughter’s gaze with amusement.

‘I’m Mandy,’ her daughter said, as though she felt her mother had missed an important social requirement and she was making up for that with charm. Her voice had with an unfamiliar lilt and for Lisa for just a second the world seemed to totally stand still.

It was the briefest and most tenuous of exchanges, but even in those seconds something rose in Lisa, something unfamiliar. It seemed old, something from years before, even something from when she might have been her daughter’s age. That response to who had the attention of the man – or the boy as it would have been in those days. It felt, though she dared not admit this to herself, a little like jealousy.

A thought rippled through her, an unwelcome snake slithering across her heart. Was she so damaged by the wreckage of her marriage she would feel the need to compete with her daughter for the attention of a man?

But then the thought passed, and the world righted itself, once more rotating on its appointed axis.

Of course, how could she be jealous of her daughter, it was absurd. They had only just met Damien and he was far too old to be of real interest to Mandy.

Or if he was of interest to her, a young girl with a crush on an older man, then certainly she was far too young to be of interest to him.

But each of these thoughts also proved ephemeral. They fled from her as quickly as they came, unwelcome guests vanishing into the night.

Damien shut the door and the night behind them and ushered them down the hallway. All the walls were a uniform creamy pale colour, glowing slightly yellow from the numerous lamps along the passageway, but looking far more modern and stark as they entered a dining area illuminated by more contemporary wall lighting.

The room, rather like the gracious host, seemed almost an exercise in irony. Modern light fittings and a large entertainment system to the right of the table clashed with a very elegant, traditional and possibly antique full dining ensemble. It would be like stepping from one century to another just by sitting or raising yourself from the table.

Damien seemed to understand the reaction. Perhaps he always furnished his homes this way and was familiar with the vague disorientation such traditional splendour mixed with the clinical coldness of modern technology could inspire.

‘The dining table and much of the furniture are family heirlooms,’ he explained, ‘Whereas the rest of the renovation work I had done here, and my rather distinct addiction to all things electronic, is more a reflection of me.’

Lisa looked at Damien and smiled, ‘I think it’s charming,’ she said, ‘So individual.’

‘So confused,’ Damien replied and they laughed gently together. In the meantime Mandy was transfixed by the entertainment system. She had gravitated to it immediately and was now regarding it with awe.

‘Wow,’ she said.

Damien was amused. He laughed and looked at the girl again in the way that caused Lisa’s stomach to slightly constrict, turn upon itself. There was nothing prurient in his gaze, nothing that suggested an inappropriate threat.

No, the threat, if one existed, wasn’t coming from him.

Mandy looked back at him. She’d just discovered the expansive and well stocked drawers of DVDs below the huge television screen. ‘You have so many films and tv series!’ she said, in awe.

‘Addict I’m afraid, probably given away by the fact that the system is in the dining room. I confess, I do that thing no-one is ever supposed to do. When I’m alone I watch TV while I eat! ’ he admitted, then he looked at Lisa, ‘It would be less tragic by far if I had company of course. You must come over and watch some with me if any run to your taste.’

A real sliver of pleasure ran through Lisa suddenly. ‘I’d like that,’ she said, ‘Sometime, perhaps. I could bring the popcorn.’

‘It’s a deal,’ he said, ‘Very neighbourly of you.’

Mandy cut across the reverie with a squeal of pure joy. ‘You have Twin Peaks!’ she said, ‘I’ve read so much about it. And mother always said it was wonderful.’

Damien turned to her. ‘It was, especially the first series,’ he agreed.

‘I was too young to see it when it aired’ Mandy continued, and something under the words irritated Lisa, making her feel old by comparison. She had little time to try to analyse why she would react this way as Damien turned immediately back to her and continued, ‘Though it seems two of us here have already seen it, otherwise we could have even watched an episode or two after dinner. Twin Peaks has a sensibility that fits quiet well with how our street, and this house in particular, are viewed by the community.’

‘So true,’ Lisa agreed.

‘I’d like to see it!’ Mandy half-whined, and Damien turned to her as Lisa shook her head at the teenager antics she was displaying. Then she saw something else in Mandy. It wasn’t her usual morose and frankly self-pitying stance. This was something else. She stood with her head half bowed, looking up at Damien through lashes made too long by too much mascara, her legs half bent with one foot awkwardly ahead of the other balancing as her hips slightly swayed. It wasn’t petulance. It was coy.

‘Well, you are welcome to come over and just watch them at your leisure,’ he offered, ‘I can give you a key if you like.’

‘I don’t really think we should presume on your hospitality that much!’ Lisa said sharply,  part alarmed that a grown man was offering this to her teenage daughter, and part something else she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – quite name.

‘It’s fine if it is alright with your mother,’ Damien continued, still looking at the delighted girl before him, “I meant you could have the key as I am often not here, my work takes me away frequently, so you would have the place to yourself, but only during the day of course. If I am here I’ll ask you to choose another time. I am sometimes work here, and when I do I need peace and quiet. But otherwise, either of you are welcome to use these facilities any time you choose. Mi casa, su casa.”

And with this, he turned back and looked intensely at Lisa, relaying a much deeper message than just the offer. A message that said the invitation is for both, not just a girl, and she will be safe, and with a myriad of other implications beneath it that made Lisa feel suddenly afraid she had been offensive. Damien had been nothing but an excellent host and a friendly neighbour. To even imply anything less wholesome was insulting at the least.

‘That’s very kind,’ she said quickly, ‘Perhaps we might take you up on it but overall, it would be far more enjoyable to do this together with you, when it suits everyone’s dairies.’

‘As you wish,’ he agreed, amiably. ‘I confess, for a moment part of me thought having the place habituated a bit more than I can offer it might chase away the ghosts they say are here.’

And he laughed half with them and half to himself at this thought.

‘Unless, of course, they want company,’ he finished, with a faint trace of irony, ‘In which case it won’t work at all.’

The storm seemed to have passed as quickly as it had come. He smiled and nodded again then asked them to take seats at the table while he brought food in from his kitchen. Lisa felt her equilibrium settle as she sat at the beautiful table and lightly touched the elegant cutlery before her. She looked up at her daughter, finally remembering she was there too, and for a moment was chilled. For just before her daughter saw her gaze and smiled, re-arranging her heavy, almost lush features into something warm, she held a very, very different expression. It was chilled, and seemed older than her years, and it was dark.

It looked, for just a second, like hate.

Seven

The next morning Lisa would only remember fragments of her nightmare. She would think this a blessing, but the shadows of memory and disconnection would tug at her sensibility, suggesting in low whispers that she really should remember. That it was important somehow.

And she would try to shrug that off, with only minimal success, using her pragmatic nature to tell herself it was the combination of many things : the excitement of meeting their new neighbour, the special sort of thrill that ran as an undercurrent through the evening between her and Damien – it had been so long since she’d really felt anything like that – the strange history of the house they met in and also the wavering tension in the air that held its origins in the emergence of her suddenly and unusually bright and inter-active daughter.

But before she woke, before she had the chance to shuffle the dim flickering images into some form of daytime sensibility, she bled into the night, torn from one image to the other.

First it is the three, the three of them, back in the dining room of his lovely home. He is laughing, telling a story, entertaining them, though something is distorting the sound and she can’t quite make out his words. Then she realises what it is. The table is humming, then it rumbles, and out of the centre, breaking through the fine tablecloth with ease, grows a tree trunk, slim but sturdy. And as they regard this with less awe than such an event should evoke, the trunk’s branches sprout. Three branches, one for each of them, reaching out like long limbs to embrace them all.

But it is not so much an embrace as a connection, an insertion, a possession, for into the chest of each the branch burrows itself without pain. She looks at Damien, a bit bewildered, wanting a cue as to how to react. He just looks back at her, calm, but with a faint glimmer in his eyes. Then she looks at Mandy and is alarmed to see not confusion, not fear, not disorientation but something else. Mandy is revelling in this, glowing.  She is a flower claiming its light on the branch of a tree. The first flower of springtime, she is blooming.

‘Very neighbourly of you,” Damien says suddenly, looking at them both in turn, as though he approves utterly.

Mi casa, su casa.

Then the colour drains from her vision and she is outside, in a black and white, shadowy world. It feels cold, there is a breeze against her skin, chilling her. She feels grass beneath her bare feet. And she hears a strange creaking, swinging sound, and looks into the shadows to try to coax more clarity in her sight.

Creak, swish, whoosh, creak, swish, whoosh. Rhythmic and almost calming.

Slowly she sees a tree. Another tree! This time on a hill, and it’s familiar, but she can’t quite place it, and in any case her eyes are drawn to a movement and something so strange. What is that hanging from the sturdiest branch? Is that a childrens’ swing?

But no, the shadows retreat and she can see the figure. It is the figure of a girl, hanging upside down, swinging. She is lifeless, though she has not been hanged in the traditional sense. The noose is not around her neck, it is around her right leg, against which her left is crossed and tied. Her neck has not broken, she has not been robbed of breath. Somehow Lisa knows that death came some other way. The grip of the rope and the tree is strong, and the wind is making her swing back and forth, her dark hair trailing like a ragged scarf in the breeze.

The dark hair completely covers the face so she can’t see it, can’t see who it is, but the hair, the body, is so familiar, she suddenly thinks she knows. And she screams.

Then she is in a darkened room lit by many candles. Damien is there again, a dark figure sitting solemn across from her. A small but raised coffee table separates them. He is shuffling cards. Large cards, too large to be playing cards, then he starts to lay them out, face down, in a strange pattern, but one that is also vaguely familiar.

He turns the first card. She sees an image like the hanged girl on the tree, and he nods. Something distant in her memory is whispering the word ‘tarot’ to her, and beneath this is some knowledge of the basic theory behind the cards. She went to a reader once, she thinks, a long time ago, and they said her marriage would be happy, and they were wrong, wrong, wrong, so how can you trust the cards?

This isn’t comforting though.

‘What’s next?’ Damien asks quietly, more to himself, as he goes to lift the second card and turn it over.

And she’s somewhere else again. After the black and white, then candlelight hues, she’s in a cacophany of colour. An auditorium, or some type of large event room of that nature. But there’s lots of noise, just behind her, and people are wailing and shouting. She’s perfectly still, just beyond the turmoil, looking at the walls, the bright yellow walls. Now splattered, like a Pro Hart painting with something else, something garish and red, something that looks like blood.

Blood.

Then she’s back with Damien in the candlelit room and he turns the next card. On it the picture of a skeleton sweeping the ground ahead almost seems to laugh at them.

‘Of course,’ Damien says, ‘The natural order of things. Death follows a sacrifice.’

She doesn’t know what he means, but she’s gone from him anyway. It’s black and white again, and she’s glad for the vision leached of colour. For everywhere around her are bodies. Many, many bodies, piled on top of each other. It’s like the end of a battle, or something far worse. Thoughts of nazi concentration camps occur, and she thinks, indeed, the quality of light and the terrible vision is like those early newsreels from that time. She half expects that when she turns she will see a camera projector and she will be in some old-time movie theatre.

But when she turns it is still more of the same, and something worse. A dark hooded figure, impossibly tall, impossibly large, is striding towards her, effortlessly wading through the bodies. And as it gets closer, it raises its head and she sees the face and she thinks: I know that face.

And she screams.

And she wakes, sweating profusely, heart racing, but the last images already retreating to places inaccessible to memory. And for long moments she lies in the early morning light, in wonder at what she can recall.  She feels lost, struggling in vain for what she can’t remember, and reliving of what is left only that which she can bear.

 

Eight

‘We have another artist in our midst!’

The voice was sneering, not complimentary, and Mandy knew the voice. It was a voice she had quickly learned to dread, coming from a person she did her level best to avoid as much as possible.

But school is a prison yard, and the other students your fellow prisoners. There are so few places to run, so few places to hide and so many communal areas with collective rituals and expectations. You cannot avoid your classmates forever.

Mandy had tried, unsuccessfully, to do so by retreating in the lunch break to the art studio at the back-end of the main school building. It was near the gym, which was always crowded, but which brought painful memories to anyone as uncoordinated and un-sporty as she. A couple of days before she’d been deliberately slammed against its dull ochre walls by a friend of the ‘voice’ and probably at her instruction. She still felt the bruises along her hip and at her elbow, bright purple painful memories of her social isolation and fear.

The art room was like the gym’s polar opposite, a place of refuge and quiet. Where it was yellow and loud, the art room was blue and silent for the most part, the only sound the sussuration of artists at work. Sometimes she found there were other students there, but they were mainly obsessed artist types who wanted to spend every free moment creating, and they left her in peace.

But today there was no such reprieve. What she hadn’t known – couldn’t have known because she wasn’t in any inner circle for any ‘it’ crowd – was that Jasmine’s current crush of the moment was one of the artist types – a lanky, rather pretty blonde boy called David. Jasmine was intent on snaring him so she could be the muse for in his sculpting endeavours.

There was no predicting Jasmine’s crushes apparently. They came and went like the wind, bestowing on the chosen one some moment of brief school celebrity, and even after she moved on they had been elevated through some mysterious magic to a higher social echelon. So few questioned whether they actually returned the crush. Schoolyards make politicians of us all in brief time.

She hadn’t seen Jasmine come in a sidle up to her latest quarry. He’d heard soft murmurings but hadn’t recognised the voice at so low a tone. And she’d felt quite comfortable in the artist’s company. David was friendly but a bit withdrawn, and he’d read some of her poetry and appreciated it.

Today she was drawing pictures. She wasn’t even sure where the imagery arose from, she just let I flow out of her, as all her best creativity did. They were pictures of trees mainly, but also of a man without a face. But inside, deep in her young heart, she saw the face of the man. She knew who it was. She just didn’t dare to draw in the features lest her brazen openness stole away any hope..any hope…

Hope of another sort fled from her the instant she heard the voice, and she was not quick enough to stop Jasmine grabbing her notebook and waving the drawings behind her for David to see.

‘Trees’ she laughed, ‘Well, being a witch and living near that tree, it figures!’

David laughed uneasily. Mandy could tell he didn’t really want to join in her harassment, but finer questions hung in the balance. Even the quiet arty types yearned for some social recognition. Everyone needs to fit in. Everyone.

Though Mandy felt she would never fit in, no here, not with them. And this obsession with the death at No 6 Mercy Lane was like a millstone round her neck.

So why did I draw trees, of all things, she castigated herself. It was like offering herself up for the slaughter.

Just like the girl, she thought and then didn’t understand the thought at all. Then another thought, it has something to do with a dream I had last night, but what was the dream?

She couldn’t remember anything, anything except trees.

‘I think you’re a better witch than an artist though’ Jasmine spat dismissively, throwing the book down on the table before Mandy. ‘But why don’t you show some finer feeling, like a good little artist, and get lost so David and I can have some quality time alone?’

Mandy looked up into the pinched, vicious face above her and felt a wave of complete rage wash over her. Jasmine didn’t look at all pretty. She seemed like a small, vicious rat. Why was she popular? Why was she adored? There seemed nothing of merit about her at all.

It was her expression, her expression on her horrid little face. In repose she might be pretty. She might look good as a corpse.

But Mandy said nothing, and held her anger in check. She rose and fled, looking only for a moment at David who shot her a brief, apologetic glance, followed equally quickly by a look of slight fear towards Jasmine in case she had seen his little kindness. But as Mandy reached the door and looked back one more time she saw that Jasmine had not, for she was grinning broadly at David, moving towards him, her hips swinging slowly, undulating like a snake.

Nine

‘I can’t remember all the dream,’ Lisa told Susan over a mid week lunch break, ‘Or nightmare, because I think it was that.  So strange.  I think it was a nightmare but I also think most of the bad parts I’ve blocked out.’

‘Apart from the hanged girl,’ Susan commented dryly, lifting her café latte to her lips and blowing softly as though she thought it would be too hot and scald her tongue.

‘Yes, though even that, I get the sense there was something worse about that than just what my fevered mind could imagine it was like, but I can’t quite get to it . Just like when a word is on the tip of your tongue.  It’s exasperating.’

‘But most of the dream, or nightmare, was weird stuff about our neighbour,’ Susan countered, smiling slightly, ‘And I get the sense that wasn’t entirely unwelcome?’

Lisa blushed slightly, feeling like a teenage girl.  And for a second that awkwardness reminded her of her concerns in that regard abut Mandy.

‘He is…charming,’ she conceded, and looked away from her friend’s keen gaze for a moment, remembering exactly how charming. At the end of their dinner he’d ushered Lisa and Mandy to the door and as she turned to go he’d taken her hand for a brief moment and lightly squeezed it, saying he hoped to see her again soon.  It had been a very intimate, personal moment, and not lost on her daughter who Lisa was sure brooded more than usual in the following days in the wake of what seemed like his choice.  His active choice.  Though of course that was absurd.  She was a teenager, a and Lisa shouldn’t even need to think like that at all.

‘But I’m a bit concerned he’s too charming,’ she continued, deciding to voice this corrosive internal reverie.  She looked out the window to the throng of people on their lunchbreak passing by. ‘I think Mandy may have a crush.’

‘Ah!’ said Susan, ‘Hence perhaps the anxiety that brought about the nightmare!  Teenage crushes are so intense.  I remember all that, if dimly!’

The pair of women laughed for a moment at the thought that their teenage years were but a distant memory.

‘I think there was part of the dream where we were all together and that sense of Mandy being drawn in was part of it,’ Lisa agreed, ‘Though something did happen in the middle of that too which I can’t really remember.  Just fragments.  Something about a tree, which led to the Hanged Girl.  Then..I don’t know. I just get the feeling I saw horrible things and in between there were the scenes I remember..Damien and the tarot cards.’

‘Well, the Hanged Girl motif would trigger that association I would think.  And you said that card came up and also Death?’

‘I think it was Death, and that related to other things I can’t remember either that followed it.  I guess that makes sense.  Death is not a happy thing.’

‘In the tarot it’s about change and choice I think,’ Susan commented, ‘I’m sure a friend of mine who dabbled in all that told me something like that once when she did a reading for me and the card came up.  I was quite alarmed to see it at first.’

‘Yes, I had a reading once.  All I remember is that the woman who did it was wrong about anything that mattered.’  Lisa’s voice had the gentle bitterness of the dying embers of autumn, just before the descent into bleak winter.  The reader had given hope just when it was most needed, but it was false hope, so all the more devastating when it failed.

‘Psychics usually are!’ Susan laughed, ‘They and weather forecasters – the other people who keep getting paid for getting it wrong all the time.  I guess maybe that’s true of anything requiring prediction.  I find that comforting though.  I’d prefer we couldn’t predict things really.  If we can I wonder if we really have choice in anything, or if that is just an illusion.’

‘How so?’

‘Well, all the little things that go up to make things happen, the little choices that narrow the later bigger choices, you see what I mean?  If anything is able to be predicted, if it’s pre-destined, then it follows pretty much everything else is.  Otherwise it might not happen.  So if that’s the case there’s no choice, and if there’s no choice there’s no good or evil and what does that do to morality?’

‘I can see your point.  Well, it would be comforting if that were the case given the dark feeling around the cards in the dream.’

‘It’s interesting, though, what you said he said it the dream.  That death follows a sacrifice, because it makes me wonder what card follows what in the pack.  From what my friend told me the Major Arcana – which are the cards like Death and so forth, follow the story of the soul’s journey to enlightenment.  Hang on, let’s check!’

And with that, carried away on an emergent theory, Susan pulled her phone out of her bag and starting tapping the keys, searching google.  Susan loved theories, she loved to ferret into the world and see its hidden connections and meanings.  She loved a mystery, but loved even more how it was unravelled and resolved.   It was probably why she’d chosen her vocation and a few moments later her journalistic instincts bore fruit and she shook her head and laughed.

‘Well, that’s interesting!’ she said, ‘Death as a card follows the Hanged Man in the pack!  Are you sure you only ever had one reading?  That’s remarkably accurate of your dreaming mind!”

Lisa shook her head.  ‘Only one reading, though I might have read something about this at some stage I suppose, and forgotten about I, just to have it emerge in dreams. I’ve always read a lot, and I did go through a stage of reading new age type self help books.  After the first days of the divorce…’

Her voice trailed off and Susan instinctively reached out and clasped her hand, re-assuring.  For a brief second it revived a sense memory of Damien a few nights earlier, as she was leaving, and the feeling was a bit overwhelming.  Lisa found equilibrium by letting her friend help in this way, but not looking at her, determinedly looking back out the window as though the streets held the key to some greater mystery.

But there were only other people out there, living their other lives, in their other worlds.  No answers to great mysteries were in sight.

Ten

Susan found she couldn’t let the mystery go. As a journalist she was successful here, a big fish in a small pond who often yearned for bigger seas and to take her career further. But this battled with her love of the smaller town’s lifestyle and its people. She was part ambitious and part domestic, and the two sides of her battled often within, though the town-loving side had won for the moment.

But now she had the scent of something. It was probably nothing – a friend’s dream, her proximity to the reputedly haunted house with its dark, shrouded history, and the excitement of a new man in her friend’s life, writ large against a nightmare with oddly occult accuracy. Still, she felt something, deep in her bones, and that there was more here than her more pragmatic side would tell her.

It was the connection of the cards, and then the connection to the house of the Hanged Girl that made her think. She’d come to the town many years after the tragedy and only heard the overview most new townsfolk shared. She’d never looked into the past history because her focus was on the here and now, her reporting concentrating on what was modern and of import in the moment. She wouldn’t have a job for long if she just dwelled on the past, and particularly on aspects of the town most people eschewed. But in any case she had been personally future focussed, so she’d just never paid all that ghost talk, and the story behind it, much attention.

Now, with her friend so close to what might be a deeper mystery, she wondered why she’d never looked backwards, to the past, to this case. Because really the Hanged Girl was the most interesting feature of the town’s history she knew of, and nothing more interesting – or more dark – had happened since.

So she took her rare spare time over the next few days and devoted it to research. Google is your friend, she thought, and used that for some background though little on the topic had made it far enough up the google search engine to give much joy. So she resiled to more old-fashioned methods and went to the local library to look up old newspapers- now luckily digitally restored and available rather than on microfiche.

And as she researched she started to realise that the story of the Hanged Girl was more complex than she realised.

The girl in question was named Carlotta Manors, and she lived with her uncle from her father’s side, Jeffrey Manors, after her parents died in a rather horrendous train accident in Sydney. She became remarkable in death, because nothing about her apart from the tragic loss of her parents – a multiple death tragedy that affected many other families and lives at the time – distinguished her in any way that might have been deemed newsworthy.

But prior to her mysterious and unsolved death and the disappearance of her uncle, there was a scandal close to her of another kind. It seemed that Jeffrey was a financial advisor of some sort and that he had either ineptly lost, or possibly swindled, many townsfolk out of their life-savings with flawed – or bogus – investments. Which it was – incompetence or malevolence, was not clear. But the result was. And for a brief period the police considered that perhaps Carlotta was not the only murder victim, but one of two, and that somewhere they might find the uncle’s body also.

It seemed the theory of the time was that some aggrieved customers of his less than successful advice might have banded together like vigilantes of a sort and taken to retribution based murder. But his body was never found, and no connections could be made to anyone conclusively in relation to the Hanged Girl’s death, and over time the urban legend overtook the actual investigation and the ghost story was born.

Retribution, Susan thought to herself, an interesting motive.

She closed the window on the library computer with this information and opened another for Google, following a hunch. What was the card before the Hanged Man in the pack?

And then she saw the answer and something in her journalist soul truly woke up, purred and stretched. She was sure, she was sure, there was something here.

The card before The Hanged Man is Justice. Justice is rough perhaps, it can be retribution. There’s a deeper mystery here, and a body of a man buried somewhere alsoI have no doubt, she thought, but if so, what could it possibly mean?

And Justice is the 11th card in the tarot pack, she continued, fevered, so how far back might this actually go? Could the theory ever, ever possibly hold?

Eleven

Looking back, Lisa might have cause to consider this night – the ‘Twin Peaks’ night – as a kind of turning point, or even harbinger of the future. She might scavenge in her memory of the night, every word spoken, every possible undercurrent or allusion, with a morbid but desperate obsession.

On the night itself, however, the main feeling was enjoyment and for both Lisa and Mandy, an excitement in once again being in the company of their neighbour. The light flirtation that had punctuated Lisa’s interactions with Damien at the first dinner – and in the days since, when he often came in to her bookshop to ‘browse’, which seemed to be code for coming to see her – hung in the night air like a promise unspoken.

Lisa could admit to herself by now that she felt an attraction to Damien, even if she wouldn’t confess to anyone, even Susan, if asked at this stage, lest her reverie dissolved in the light of day and under the scrutiny of another. The thought of this connection both frightened and excited her. The memory of her marriage and its destruction hovered over her, making her nervous of any man, but the link seemed undeniable, and in her quieter moments she flattered herself to believe all the signs were there that it was mutual.

It is fast, but most attractions are, she would tell herself, the only question being what you would do with it and how long it might last.

But that isn’t the only question here, she thought grimly, viewing her daughter’s choice to sit cross-legged on the floor to watch the DVD, placing herself just close enough to Damien that one might view her as sitting at his feet. There was not a lot of space between the dining table and chairs and the easy chairs he had placed before the TV for the viewing, so this felt uncomfortably close and intimate for Lisa’s taste. Mandy, however, was quite content.

The only thing clearer to Lisa than her attraction to Damien and what she hoped was its reciprocation, was her daughter’s attraction to him too. She did not detect him returning the flirtation in Mandy’s direction, but he was kind, and a young girl could mis-interpret so much. Of course, should his interest be drawn in that direction, Lisa’s own attraction might make her unconsciously refuse, quite literally, to see it. In darker moments she could almost contemplate that. Almost.

In lighter, but still anxious moments, she contemplated how to navigate this should she and Damien actually choose to act on their attraction – how would she tell Mandy, and what would Mandy make of this? She knew Mandy was desperately unhappy now, scared in many ways to go to school but too withdrawn to tell her why. Mandy had never had the facility of fitting in easily, but in other schools it had never been quite this bad. It was almost like something in the nature of the town itself was pathologically against Mandy, for her this town was just bad. But there was no money and no way to move on, she would have to fit in, and in any case Lisa thought, looking at Damien, I don’t want to move on anyway.

This left Lisa with a parenting conundrum about options and choices that seemed too harsh to contemplate. Time usually allowed Mandy to find friends with other misfits and to have a shaky but acceptable equilibrium. And she usually discussed that journey with Lisa. But this time, nothing but sorrowful looks and silence. Apart from this, apart from this …happiness…that only emerged, a butterfly from its chrysalis, when Damien was present.

Lisa didn’t want to think about this while they were enjoying the show. Lisa herself had never had such social anxiety, and sometimes she found it difficult to understand and empathise with – particularly times like this where the darkness of her fears for her daughter threatened to cloud some of the few true pleasures of her own life. She had loved Twin Peaks when she first saw it, and nothing over the years had dimmed its appeal. So she tried to push her concerns out of her mind, but as the night progressed the issues raised up and down, waves on a restless sea.

When the pilot episode reached the point where Agent Cooper and Audrey have their first, flirtatious encounter Mandy grabbed the remote, pressed pause, and stretched round like a cat, looking up at Damien.

‘You look like Agent Cooper,’ she purred.

Startled, Lisa looked at Damien and realised there was truth to this. Damien’s features were slightly heavier than Cooper’s, and he was older than the actor was at the time, but otherwise the hair, the facial shape, even the glittering, kind eyes, were very like Cooper. And looking down at the twisting, heavy but still alluring form of her daughter, with her dark raven hair and meticulously made up face, she saw her daughter could have been Audrey in that moment.

A chill ran through Lisa and she actually shuddered slightly though neither noticed. She remembered too well the uneasy but charged dynamic between the two fictional characters. And now, Mandy’s eyes were only for Damien and he was looking at her with a kind indulgence.

‘Which Lodge do you come from then?’ Lisa asked Damien sharply, to bring his attention to her, and in so doing jumping to parts of the show’s mythos that her daughter did not know yet, so could not share.

‘I’m a bit afraid of that answer,’ Damien admitted, laughing, ‘Given the ghost that is reputedly here!’

‘What are you talking about?” Mandy demanded with pique from having her moment stolen so easily by her mother.

Damien looked back to her. ‘That all comes later in the series. A Black Lodge and a White Lodge, the former for evil, the latter for good, spiritual way stations if you will, but I don’t want to say much more or it will spoil it all for you. Tell you what, why don’t you borrow the box set and watch all the way up to just before the final episode of the second series, then we re-group to watch the finale together? That way any discussions we have we can all be party to.’

Lisa didn’t know whether to be happy he’d separated Mandy from hours of viewing with him – albeit with her in company as well – or whether to be concerned by the slight censure she detected under his words – the sense that perhaps he felt that it was not fair to Mandy to talk of concepts she couldn’t understand.

‘That way it will all make sense,’ he continued, still looking at Mandy, who was mollified quite quickly by his kindness and concern.

‘Thank you, I’d like that,’ she said, then shot a very quick, almost angry look to her mother, before turning round to press the pause button again for the pilot episode to continue, ‘But we may as well watch the rest of this episode together.’

Lisa felt so unsettled she quietly excused herself and went to the bathroom. Following that she stopped for long moments in his kitchen, not really taking anything in, but not being ready to go back to the room. Like a magnet, however, he sensed her loss and came in.

And she realised she had been fervently hoping he would.

She didn’t dare say anything about her concerns because they were absurd, and insulting to him also. So instead she said, ‘Do you think this house could be like a spiritual way station?’

‘Who knows?’ Damien replied, more amused it seemed than concerned, ‘Twin Peaks is fiction, of course. And ghosts, I would say are probably fictions too. No point in dwelling on it. I’m not being plagued by things that go bump in the night. Not unless you count a less than stellar water system sometimes! But I do find this place’s history interesting I do admit, just like I find shows like that interesting. I often think it would be fabulous to live in a world so wondrous and strange.’

‘And dangerous!’ Lisa argued.

‘Yes,’ Damien agreed, ‘But you can’t have wonder without a bit of danger, a bit of dread. Still, this is just a house I think, no more than that.’

‘Just as well, given its history!’

‘Yes,’ Damien chuckled, and walked close to her, and for a brief moment touched her hand, lightly, a suggestion, a promise, then withdrawn to keep the moment light, ‘Because it would have to be a Black Lodge, wouldn’t it, given its current ghostly residents?’

Twelve

‘This is the weirdest thing I think I’ve ever come across!’ Susan announced, placing her iPad and her notebook on the cafe table with a flourish.

Lisa was vaguely irritated. She had so little spare time now with work and dealing with Mandy that she needed some ‘time out’ and she’d very much wanted to use this brief moment to talk with her friend about her concerns for her daughter and her crush on Damien.  But Susan had brushed these off with a dismissive comment about teenagers, crushes and the like, because her interests were obviously so otherwise directed.

‘What is?’ Lisa asked, her voice a bit tight, though her friend did not notice this. Or if she did, she wasn’t of a mind to acknowledge it. Susan could be like a steamroller sometimes, unaware of the finer nuances of social interaction. This probably gave her a suit of armour for her job, a kind of lacuna of empathy on occasion that allowed her to trespass on people’s private worlds if required, but it also made her a somewhat oblivious friend.

Still, there would be no dissuading her from her course till she had told her story. When they were young, Susan was fond of being the storyteller, and not above a fair degree of embellishment and exaggeration. Again, this probably aided her in her vocation. But remembering this, Lisa also met all her friend’s ‘stories’ with a degree of discriminating disbelief. What constitutes a cause celebre on the front page of a newspaper one day will often be forgotten the next, but Lisa remembered beyond that and how often in their youth Susan’s stories turned out to be flights of fancy and no more. So when she said something was the weirdest thing ever, Lisa switched on her critical faculties as quickly as she attuned her ears to hear the story about to unfold.

‘This town has a long history of peculiar deaths,’ Susan intoned.

‘I imagine all towns do, if you look hard enough into their history.’ Lisa replied. She idly swirled the pattern of chocolate on the top of her cappuccino froth, as though that might divine for her a speedier retreat from the discussion. For a second a sense memory wafted up to her, of Damien passing her a coffee at the end of the Twin Peaks viewing night, his fingers lingering just a few seconds too long on hers. There was such promise in that single moment, a communion of such shared and agreed desire, that the memory took her out of the present just long enough to miss the beginning of what Susan was saying, and her friend seemed to sense this and said, rather sharply, ‘Are you with me or with him?’

‘What?’ Lisa asked, stunned.

Susan cackled. ‘You know. Our mysterious new neighbour! Your mysterious…handsome.. new neighbour, from what you’ve said!’

Lisa blushed, caught out.

‘When are you going to introduce me to this paragon, by the way?’ Susan asked, ‘I’m dying to see what kind of man captures my fussy friend’s attention!’

‘What? Oh soon I suppose, maybe you could come over to dinner soon and I’ll invite him too’ Lisa muttered, then landed on an idea, ‘It could be good to see what you make of Mandy’s reaction to him too.’

‘Cool, I’ll be your undercover spy!’ Susan chortled, ‘now, back to the mystery, if I may have your undivided attention for just a few moments? Yes? Good. As I said, this town has an interesting history of deaths – some unsolved, some accidental and so forth, but I started to see a pattern, taking into account the hint about tarot cards in your dream. I decided to go backwards and see if anything fit.’

Susan continued that she was sure it did. She outlined her theory about Carlotta’s uncle being lynched, as a sign of the Justice card, then noted that only about eighteen months previously a young girl had been killed in a freak accident at a playground. Running past the spinning playground wheel her clothes had somehow gotten captured to the device and the momentum of this and the other children playing on the wheel meant that she was dragged, then bashed against the wheel itself, cracking her skull as easily as one might break an egg.

Lisa shuddered at the description, and instantly communed with the mother of this poor child, who probably only looked away for a moment, and one moment later her life was shattered, her little girl gone. Every parent’s worst nightmare. Then arising from the reverie she shook her head at her friend and raised her eyebrows, as though to ask ‘So?’

‘The card before the Justice card is the Wheel of Fortune! The Wheel! A children’s playground wheel! Don’t you see?’

‘Susan, that’s a bit of a stretch, and a ghoulish one at that, surely!’

‘Well perhaps if that was all,’ Susan said, slightly pouting, but unswayed, ‘But not long before that there was a suicide of a failed author. Apparently he was a shy person who worked quietly at the town library for many years till something convinced him to try to write himself, then he kind of disappeared into his loneliness and inability to succeed. They said he lived a completely solitary life and no-one would have even known except the council was called out when a neighbour spoke of a strange smell coming from his house.’

‘Susan, these things happen depressingly often. There is a whole underbelly of the lost and disenfranchised in society these days..’

‘He was a hermit!’ Susan said, irritated her friend wasn’t catching on, ‘And the card before the Wheel is the Hermit!

‘Susan, I suspect if you wanted to you could trawl through town deaths and find vague links to anything really.’

‘Before that, a celebrated athlete in the town had a heart attack at a visiting carnival show, trying to prove his strength in a carnival game!’

‘Yes, and..let me guess..that has a card correlation too…’

‘Strength! The card before that is Strength! Then about a year earlier the old local train station was the site of a terrible train accident, with someone falling before a train just as it was coming in to the station. It’s one of the reasons they shut the place down. The card before that is The Chariot.’

‘Ok, now you are really stretching things! “ Lisa said, getting quite irritated with her friend’s bizarre theory and the dark, morbid line of enquiry. Wasn’t it enough that she and her daughter lived next to the house where a poor young girl was murdered? Did Susan really have to look for something occult and bizarre and even more gruesome to add to it? Was she that bored? It seemed it was maybe time for her friend to think about moving to a bigger city. The confines of a quiet country town would soon not contain her appetite for drama.

‘Before that there’s a story of lovers doing a suicide pack, and the card is the Lovers. Then there was a disgraced priest, suiciding of all things in the Church, after being caught out having an affair with a local dignitary’s wife. The card is the Hierophant, which is all about formal structure, religion, and so forth. I’m not sure about the Emperor, but apparently it is about work among other things, and about ten years before that there was a terrible accident at a construction site, where they were re-building the town theatre, so possibly that’s a connection given the victims were at their work at the time.’

‘You must see how this is getting even more tenuous, surely?’

‘But then, the card before that is the Empress, which is the mother, and about three years before that I found reference to a mother killing her own child! Infanticide! Probably post natal depression though this was a long time ago by now – the deaths stretch over many decades overall – so I guess they didn’t know about that type of depression then! Then, even creepier, there was a story of two strange murders on the outskirts of town which looked like they were ritual based – a man and a woman, strangers to the town, not known, they still don’t know who the victims were. Apparently there was talk at the time that the town might have had some sort of satanic group at large, and the cards before the Empress are the High Priestess and the Magician, both which could fit with that type of thing. And frankly, if there was a satanic group here, maybe that’s what’s behind all of it really, and perhaps they are still here!  Then about two years before that, the local mayor of the time was killed in a climbing accident – admittedly on his holidays at the Blue Mountains, but he was a town figure, and if you look at the picture on the very first tarot card – the Fool – then you see someone dancing on the precipice of a cliff!’

‘And you said this spanned over decades?’

‘Yes!’ Susan agreed, excitedly, ‘So whatever this is, it’s been happening for a long time and quite deliberately. I can show you some of my research!’

Lisa reached out and put her hand over the top of her friend’s left hand, stopping her reaching for her iPad.

‘Susan, I really don’t have time for that now, I’ll need to get back to work. And anyway, really, I think this is a bit too much, even for you. I know you love mysteries, but I kind of bet, as I said before, if you went through the history of deaths in any town you could find connections to this type of theory, just by sheer coincidence.’

‘But in that order?’

‘Well, yes, if you extend the search long enough and you were liberal enough in making your interpretations and connections, I think you could. You aren’t saying all these deaths happened over a brief period of time in exactly that order, and without any unrelated deaths between them, now are you?’

Susan shook her head, a bit angry at her friend’s dismissal. ‘Of course there are deaths between them, but some of these are odd and I doubt you would find this pattern just anywhere, no matter how much you tried! I think there’s something else going on here, something much stranger, like a procession of death of sorts, in line with the tarot.’

‘And if that is true, given the randomness of it all, what could possibly be behind it, and why, satanic groups or not withstanding and I must say if they are around they must have a hell of a lot of patience to see this through if you are right.  And in any case, by your reckoning, the next one,  ‘Death’ – could be years away. Or, by your theory, the next person who dies peacefully in their sleep, given they are dead, might qualify!’

Susan looked at her friend in dismay. Lisa obviously saw what was her complete lack of imagination as pragmatism, and her refusal to consider other alternatives was just blindness masquerading in her mind as analytical discrimination. Somehow, deep in her bones, Susan knew she was on to something real here. Call it journalistic instinct if you like, she felt the weave of history as a narrative and she knew something worse was on its way, something riding on the next tarot card, the portentous card of Death.

‘There’s something strange going on here, in this town, I can feel it!’ She argued, knowing it was pointless, but feeling in some way she still had to say this anyway, that in some sense she needed to warn her friend, even if she wasn’t really sure why this would be. ‘You can dismiss my theory all you like, and you are right the next time might be ages away, I admit, though by my reckoning the speed of these is slowly, but surely increasing over time. Still, I hope the next time is way off, because for my part, a simple natural death wouldn’t qualify. I’m not that gullible Lisa, and I’m not just stretching things to fit a theory, no matter what you may think! The next one, if I’m right, will be bad, really bad. Not some gentle passing into that good night. The Death card is like the grim reaper, cutting a swathe through a battleground. So the next time won’t be a single, simple death. I think it’s going to be lots of death, lots of it, all at once. So I hope to God it is years and years away, and none of us are still here to witness it!’

Thirteen

Mandy’s school had a hallway with student lockers that reminded her quite strongly of the school scenes in Twin Peaks. They were shabbier, a dull grey colour, and some in need of repair, so nowhere near as sparkly as those in the show, but still they were similar enough. This delighted her, as did any connection, however slight, to the television show, and by extrapolation, to the time spent in Damien’s company watching that pilot episode.

And so it was that she spent hours on the internet, trawling for other associations, buying clothes and makeup with her small, but adequate allowance, that Audrey might well have worn on the show, in that mythical town of Twin Peaks. When her purchases arrived a week or two later her mother did not see the connection, did not know to look for it, and just seemed happy to see her daughter was favouring something with colour and flair as opposed to her usual choice of drab blacks and greys. She encouraged Mandy to buy more, offering her some additional money to do so, to their mutual delight.

And so it also was, that in this school that did not demand school uniforms, but allowed their students to dress as they chose – though most were in a uniform of black of their own communal, subconscious choice – that Mandy found herself days later, twisting slightly as Audrey did in the television show, coyly putting her books in her locker. In her mind she was Audrey, born again and Damien was Dale Cooper, and all was wonderfully right with the world.

The only difference being, where her further viewing of the program from Damien’s DVDs had shown Audrey did not manage to ignite a relationship with Dale, Mandy felt far more positive of her own prospects. If only her mother would just give them some time alone.

After all, Damien had given her his DVDs for her private viewing, establishing a personal connection between them. It was like when boys at school might lend you books, or DVDs, or CDs – it meant something.

It meant everything. And for Mandy, whose life was otherwise dark and rather frightening with her increasing school isolation and sense of dis-connectedness to everything else, the everything that Damien meant was great indeed.

Deep in her private replay of Audrey’s mannerisms and life, and feeling a wonderful – albeit fragile and only early blooming – sense of beauty and womanhood in these luxurious clothes, Mandy did not hear the laughter aimed in her direction for many moments. She was too busy putting her new high heels in the locker, from which she would take them later, pretending she was going out as Audrey might, for a coffee and a dance to music played on the jukebox at the Twin Peak’s diner. Or even better, that those heels would accompany a visit to such a diner where she would find Damien, just like Dale, savouring the coffee and waiting for her.

Finally she shut the locker door, as Audrey would also do, with a slight, mischievous slam, and turned, her happiness about to dissolve as quickly as aspirin in water. For standing watching her was Jasmine, her arm draped casually around David’s waist, and she was then surrounded by a group of her friends, or followers more accurately, a dark halo around the demon queen.

They were all laughing – laughing at her for some reason it was clear – except, mercifully David, who just looked at her uneasily for a moment then looked down to the ground.

‘I was just saying,’ Jasmine spat at her, as though she was rude at not having heard the earlier conversation, ‘That it’s probably right for a ghost girl to look like the past, but the 1950s is stretching it a bit!’

And of course, her white and green floral patterned, full skirted dress and her cute yellow bolero, plus her shiny patent green pumps, did combine well for a 1950’s look, just like Lynch’s vision in the show. The internet fashion houses she had visited had been ‘retro’ and some even blatantly targeted this look. She’d been deliberate in getting this, and now she stood, a victim of her own fashion sense.

A fashion victim.

Only someone confident, someone popular, in a school can challenge sartorial convention in this way. Someone like that would not only pull it off, but set a new fashion trend others would follow. But Mandy was none of those things, so how could she have presumed?

In that moment she was speechless, completely unable to think of a smart retort, or to how to regain the ground. Her little joys had been so personal, so private, so early and brief and so precious, that to have them shatter at her feet, with only her own internal castigation for her foolishness to see them to their rest, was a complete undoing. Her one moment of climbing out of the pit of her life over recent years – away from her parent’s divorce, and moving home and losing the few friends her young life had known, and then being here in this hell hole, and all the myriad of anguishes that are simply being a teenager – now crushed down upon her in its sheer pointlessness. Life was reminding her she couldn’t win, would never win. She was never, ever to be a winner, ever at all.

Tears came unbidden to her eyes, causing further shame and embarrassment, and she suddenly was nothing but movement, running, running past them and away: away from them, away from the school, scuffing her new pumps on the pavement as she tore out of the schoolyard and just ran, and ran and ran. And for a long time she thought she still heard them laughing, even when she was streets away from the school, and it was only when that faded finally and mercifully that she slowed, catching her breath between sobs.

And it was only then that she knew where she was headed, instinctively, needfully. It wasn’t to her mother’s bookstore, there was no comfort there, she was sure. And it wasn’t just to her empty home, as she might have unconsciously expected, but it was close to that. She turned into her home street with a sense of revelation and calm. Of course, of course there was a place to go. There was only one place to go.

Damien opened the door of No 6 Mercy Lane and gazed at her in a kind of wonder and concern. She must have looked bedraggled, a stray cat wanting to come in from a stormy night.

She thought, thank god he is home. And then, of course he is because I need it, I need it so much so he had to be here.

He understood of course, he understood immediately, without her needing to talk to explain, he just knew. She could tell, from his first kind gaze, that he knew. She felt it deep in her bones, a kind of acceptance that brought relief, belonging and sanctuary. He shook his head slightly at her, and reached out and touched her shoulder, brief, tender. She shuddered, knowing this truth even deeper, in her most private wells of feeling.

‘Come in,’ he said, ‘You look like you need a friend’.

Fourteen

A dismal, slow business day at the bookstore was beginning to make Lisa fight off sleep at the store’s counter. She’d not been sleeping well of late. She was still plagued with strange, disturbing dreams, and Susan’s hyperbolic stories of a tarot litany of deaths – no matter how absurd and so Susan-like that was – did nothing to help dispel the thrall that the nightmare world held over her. Like before, she remembered little of dreams and terrors in the night, just brief glimpses, and from time to time the presence of Damien in the dreams, like a guiding light to lead her out of the darkness.

Like the darkness of boredom, she thought, as the door opened to the bookstore, sunlight leaping into the room like a message from the gods, like that light-bringer in her nightmares, and she saw – so fittingly it was almost poetic – the very welcome figure of Damien in its halo.

‘I was passing by,’ he said, ‘Taking some time out from work to do a bit of retail therapy. And what better therapy would there be than to come and visit you?’

‘Come right in, you’re a sight for sore eyes’ Lisa replied.

‘Oh?” he asked, solicitous, now up at the counter near her, so close she could smell the somewhat musky scent of his aftershave.

‘Slow day,’ she said, ‘And I’m still having those nightmares.’

‘Terrible,’ he said, ‘I find nightmares come in clusters, like they feed off each other. We shall have to think of some more enjoyable things to do that might break the cycle and chase them away.’

The message in the words, the undercurrent, was very clear and she shivered with anticipation and delight.

‘Mandy is going away on a school excursion in a week’s time’ she found herself saying, ‘So I have the house to myself. Why don’t you come over for dinner and we can see if you can help me with that then?’

‘Delighted,’ he agreed, as the message was clearly conveyed between them, ‘Speaking of Mandy though, she came to visit me a couple of days ago.’

The hackles on the back of Lisa’s neck rose suddenly and his words. She felt a cool, harsh, complete anger at Mandy, way beyond the redness and heat of rage into something far older, far deeper, which she did not fully recognise herself. She did not realise she had gripped the counter at his words and was even then pressing down hard, her own fingernails close to breaking from the pressure.

‘Oh?’ she asked, her voice tight.

If her anger was obvious to him he did not show it. He just continued on, ‘Yes, seems she is having a bad time of it at school. She was looking for a friend.’

Lisa felt guilty suddenly, on so many layers, crowding in on her. She knew her daughter was suffering at school, but Mandy was maddeningly withdrawn about it all, and if Lisa was honest, a part of her liked it that way. If Mandy didn’t share, she didn’t have to think about what this might mean about the longer term prospects of staying in this town, and looking at Damien in this moment she knew how much she wanted to stay here.

Even if Mandy suffered, even that. We all have to make sacrifices, after all. Sacrifices…..

‘I talked to her for a while, tried to teach her some ways to defend herself, that sort of thing, ‘Damien was continuing. ‘I was bullied when I was young.’

‘You were?’ Lisa asked, genuinely surprised. Damien was a tall, well built man who exuded a kind of calm resolution. It was hard to imagine any bully sizing him up and deciding to strike. Plus, the thought of Damien as young seemed incongruous somehow. There was something about him which was ageless, or suggested an age beyond mere years. It was hard to picture him as ever being a child or even a teenager.

‘I didn’t grow to my full height and build till my late teens, so I was a slow bloomer. Those things count at school. So I learned ways to defend myself, and, when needed, to even make people frightened of me. My father taught me. It was sort of like, first make them afraid, then you never actually have to do anything. So I talked to Mandy about that – the importance of how to appear, and then also the need to able to follow though if needed. In combination it usually means you never have to.’

‘What did you suggest, some form of martial arts?’ Lisa asked, a bit horrified at her daughter setting herself up to be frightening. Deep within Lisa admitted to herself there had always been something a bit disturbing about Mandy anyway, a sense of an uncoiled spring, a serpent in the garden, about to strike. She wasn’t sure she wanted anyone to put such thoughts in her morose daughter’s head, not now.

And even less that this come from Damien, meaning he was perhaps unconsciously indulging her daughter’s crush. That could only lead to a bad outcome, no matter how noble his intent.

‘No,’ he said, ‘That would take too long. And in any case, I doubt she really has the athleticism required for that. I mean no offence, but I don’t think that your daughter’s best weapon is herself, not in that sense.’

‘True, and no offence taken, ‘ Lisa agreed, a bit inwardly ashamed of her small pleasure of the mild censure implied about her daughter’s physicality. She did not think to ask what method of defence he had suggested instead. She only said, ‘Do be careful though. I think Mandy has a crush on you, and I don’t want to see her get hurt.’

‘Nor do I,’ he said, gentle, touching one of her hands – both of which had now relaxed their grip on the counter, ‘I am very aware of, and careful about,the influence I have on her, do not worry. I only mean to help, and no more.’

The moment was broken by the door opening again, and the enthusiastic sound of Susan, announcing herself as she entered the store.

‘My god I needed a lunch break, or at least a coffee!’ she said, ‘Can I lure you away Lisa? At least for a coffee?’

As she came up to the counter she seemed to register Damien, though he had his back turned to her and she did not see his hand on her friends hand, so she must have thought him a customer, because she added, ‘As soon as you’ve finished serving your customer of course.’

As she finished speaking she’d reached her destination and Damien had turned to her, smiling.

‘I’m not a customer, I’m a friend, and you are not disturbing us. Please feel free to help our mutual friend escape this place for a break.’

He smiled openly at Susan, but she had stopped still, a slight frown on her face, looking at him.

‘Have we met before?’ she asked. ‘You look very familiar somehow.’

‘Susan, this is Damien, my neighbour, who I might have mentioned’ Lisa said, emphasising the last point of her words to tell her friend clearly not to give away how much she might have mentioned him already.

Damien held out his hand, introducing himself, and waited for her to return the compliment. After a couple of uncomfortable beats, she responded in kind.

‘You just look very familiar,’ she said.

‘Perhaps I just have one of those faces,’ he replied, smooth, unconcerned, dropping her hand, and turning to bow slightly to Lisa, ‘I will bid you good day then, till we next meet.’

Lisa blushed at the gentlemanly formality, and watched him go with some regret, barely disguising her slight pique when she looked back at her friend. But Susan did not notice, as she wasn’t looking at Lisa at all, instead watching Damien retreat with a frown of puzzlement, slightly shaking her head.

The door of the bookstore closed behind Damien, and in so doing seemed to extinguish a light in the bookstore, robbing the day of its glow with his departure. The light-bringer was gone.

Fifteen

‘You need to look at these photos,’ Susan insisted to Lisa as their coffees started to grow cold. ‘I’ve compiled all I can from the history, it’s all here.’

She put her iPad down, swivelling it to be right side up for her friend.

Lisa was getting more irritated by the minute. Almost as soon as they had sat down with their coffees she had started to regret turning the ‘back in half an hour’ sign over on the bookstore door and coming out with her friend, even if the general quiet of the day indicated it was unlikely anyone would be denied access to the store as a result. It wasn’t the lack of business that vexed her, it was that her friend’s obsession with this death theory was growing, not diminishing, and she seemed to be implying something about Damien was involved now, which meant the hyperbole was going into over-drive.

‘This one,’ Susan said, flicking one open in front of Lisa, ‘Is of Carlotta’s uncle and some of his business associates. See the man in the back of the photo, see what I mean?’

Lisa looked grudgingly at the grainy, darkened photo. To see Carlotta’s uncle was ghoulish enough, but the poor quality of the photo overall did nothing to strengthen her friend’s case, or explain her fevered insistence that Lisa involve herself in this fool’s escapade.

There were three men with the uncle in the photo. The one at the back was tall, with dark hair, and his face was partially obscured by the rather unfortunate bouffant hairstyle of one of the other men. But it was true – to the degree that old, black and white grainy photos could make people look like people – there was perhaps more than a passing resemblance to Damien in that photo. If you were of a mind to be imaginative, of course, which Susan was always far too ready to be.

‘That’s someone they call Mr.D Whethers, and it seems he might have been the man who encouraged Carlotta’s uncle to go into the more speculative line of business that bought such ruin to him and his clients.’

‘Whethers isn’t Damien’s name,’ Lisa responded, her voice tight, ‘And he’d be older to be that man, surely.’

‘It’s not just that!’ Susan replied, and then started to flick rapidly through some of the other photos she had stored on her computer. ‘This is the failed author, photographed with someone they claim might have been a possible literary agent, and you can’t see it too clearly, but still, there is a resemblance. Then this, the strong man who died of a heart attack, this is a photo of him with some friends, and look at the man in the corner! Then this one, years before, the priest that committed suicide, a photo of him outside the church with some of his congregation, look at this man there! And worst of all, look at this photo of a group of men and women that were accused of being involved in the satanic cult around the time of the ritual deaths – look at him!’

And with that she jabbed her finger at the photo, at a man who did look a bit like Damien, albeit with a slight beard and mustache that gave the visage a distinct Mephistophelean air.

‘These photos aren’t great, and you said yourself, these are decades between some of these deaths. At the time of this last one Damien wouldn’t have even been born. What are you saying exactly?’

Susan stopped a moment, as though only just realising this in her fervour. ‘I don’t know exactly. You’re right it can’t be him, that’s impossible, but maybe a relative? Maybe it’s something in his family? You have to admit it’s a hell of a coincidence’

‘A coincidence is exactly what it is,’ Lisa said, impatient and beyond caring for her friend’s finer feelings any more. Obviously Susan didn’t care much about hers. It didn’t matter to her she knew Lisa was smitten with her new neighbour – even if it was the first positive link Lisa had had to a man for so many years, and that definitely counted the last desultory years of her marriage before the divorce. Susan didn’t care about that, clearly, if she had this scent of some frankly absurd conspiracy story. Lisa’s happiness was clearly nowhere near as important as her new obsession. So why should Lisa care too much for how Susan felt?

Makes you wonder if she’s really a friend at all, Lisa thought grimly.

‘It’s too much, and it seems whoever these men are, they are far too close to all this, so I’m frightened you might be in danger of some kind.’

That was too much. That was it.

It was time for the truth, stripped bare of any friendship propriety. It was time for the gloves to come off, and damn the consequences, this was just too much. Lisa had spent so much of her life as the good girl, the nice girl, the tolerant one: sucking up the dramas and needs and histrionics of friends and lovers. Always being the one who was kind, who cared, who thought before she spoke. That’s what she was taught in her home, growing up, and like there, what did it get her, in the end? It seemed sometimes that when people asked you to be considerate of others, all they really meant was for you to be considerate of them, and that in this consideration you gave them complete license to never consider you.

Never consider you. It was enough. It was time.

‘No you’re not. You’re just obsessed with a story, with the drama of it all. Really, you always have been like this, and I’ve tolerated it, never wanted to hurt your feelings with pointing this out, but this time it’s too much. You want to hurt me, or at least you don’t care if I’m hurt by all this. You know how I feel about Damien! You know! So don’t pretend this is for my welfare. You want a mystery, and you don’t care what it costs anyone else, and frankly that’s just nasty, that’s just unkind. Even for you!’

She stood, throwing money from her purse on the table for the coffee.

‘So don’t come asking me to use up my precious spare time just to indulge your latest obsession. And really, just don’t bother me at all unless you come to some sense and see what you’re doing here. I’ve had enough!’

Susan looked at her stunned, unable to respond. Lisa just shook her head, her face telegraphing an awful mixture of dismay and repulsion, and then she turned, stalking out of the café.

‘Lisa! There’s something here, you have to see it! You might be in danger that’s all..that’s all I’m concerned about, that’s all!’

But her words were lost to Lisa, who had slammed the door of the café as she left, and so only the other patrons heard it, looking at the display with some amusement or puzzlement. Susan felt suddenly adrift and ashamed, embarrassed publicly. She was a journalist here, and well-known, and had a reputation to defend, and in one fell swoop of trying to protect her friend, she could destroy that respect.

Trying to protect her friend, her friend who spat out such viciousness in response: just like the mere thought of Damien being questioned could bring out the warrior within. And as Susan stared into her coffee cup rather than meet the eyes of her fellow café patrons, a new terror emerged.

She’d only come to the bookstore to get Lisa to come out for the coffee. It hadn’t been on her mind to even discuss her research because she knew Lisa thought she was chasing shadows. But then she’d seen Damien, she’d seen his face and she’d known, deep in her bones, the photos were telling the truth, not lies.

And the man in them that looked like Damien was central to so many of the deaths before they occurred, almost like he was a catalyst of some sort. Or the family of men, if that was what made more sense. So she’d had to warn Lisa, she had to. She had no other choice as a friend.

But if that was the case, what depths of control from this shadow figure made others bring about their own ruin in his or their midst? And what might that mean for Lisa, if the slightest question of Damien, his background or his motives was raised and such fury came in its wake? Was she already under some kind of spell? Was that was it was?

And what might that mean?

And how could she help a friend who so violently and completely refused her help? What could she possibly do? And was it already far, far too late?

Sixteen

This time the nightmare is different. It is darkened skies, streaked with a fiery red, like lightning reaching from the heavens has struck something solid and is blazing this fuel across the sky. It is bleeding roads, blood-red, before her, in a world that is lost and forsaken.

Somewhere nearby, across the sky again a falling star, the falling light, screams soundlessly but still she hears. She’s calling for Damien, but he’s nowhere to be found, nowhere to be seen.

And for a moment she sees Susan, waving photos at her, telling her to look for him there, he’s there, he’s there. And then the photos scatter at her feet and are absorbed in the running blood and there’s something in all this, something about her, something she should know. The roads awash with blood, the photos of the tragedies of the past melting with the tragedies to come.

Susan’s long gone, long gone, and she’d like to think good riddance but there are people walking this road with her now, many, many people, and she doesn’t know any of them. They are a procession of grey, slipping and sliding on the red road. She reaches out to one, to have them turn, but she can’t see his or her face, they don’t have faces, not a one, and possibly, neither does she. How would she know?

When one turns to her, its nothingness is a screaming maw of rage and pain and spite. They are angry at her for some reason, they are out for blood, out for blood.

I’m in a photograph, she thinks, one yet to be taken, and one day someone will look at it and wonder, and wonder what happened here and why and what part I had to play.

Then the thought is gone, and she’s alone on the road again, just crying out for Damien, who’s nowhere to be seen. And she thinks, I’ve been here before, I’ve been alone before, calling out to a man whose already gone, already gone.

It’s a pattern of her life.

Then she isn’t alone, there’s a figure coming towards her, quite distant yet. Stumbling, staggering, a girl in dull grey clothes, drab as the sky is bright and jagged. Her hair is stringy and as she approaches she’s mumbling and crying, mumbling and crying. And Lisa is afraid to reach out and touch her, see her face, because she won’t have one, she won’t have one, not her, not anyone.

But as the girl gets closer she’s suddenly afraid, so afraid of her, she wants to turn and run, run and run. You should be afraid of this girl, something is telling her, she’s dangerous, she’s wild, and mad and bad and dangerous.

But she’s drab and staggering and looks pitiful and cold and lost, just like Lisa feels.

And then she’s close, close enough to see, and then the deepest shock of all. It’s Mandy, it’s only Mandy, but she’s changed, she’s different, she’s not the same, not anymore, but Lisa can’t even work out what that means. And there’s this terrible overwhelming guilt and horror that she didn’t even recognise her own child, wandering these blood soaked streets. She didn’t even know her and she was afraid. She was afraid of her own daughter.

Mandy raises her eyes to her mother’s and where she should have tears are drops of blood. She’s weeping blood, holding out her hand, whimpering, ‘Momma?’

And Lisa backs away, backs away and screams and turns and runs and hears her daughter behind her, just calling out, over and over, lost in despair.

Seventeen

And Mandy is in her own dream of sorts, though its daylight now, and in this inhospitable place. But she’s elsewhere, gone from there, escaping into the soporific cover of early afternoon. Her mind is wandering to far more pleasant places, and to people she wants to see.

Of course, there’s only one person she wants to see, and there he is, standing right behind her, his arms lifting hers as she handles the rifle, helping her aim for the shoot.

‘It’s all in the balance,’ he’s saying, ‘And in perspective. When you look down the sites and know your target, it’s all the perspective you will ever need.’

His breath is soft and warm against her neck, her cheek. She thinks she feels its force making her hair wave, a billowing welcome to him. He’s teaching her to brave, to stand up for herself, to be the frightening one, not the frightened. His father taught him, he says, and he can teach her.

‘I know how it feels,’ he whispers, ‘I know how it feels to be different, to be alone to have a destiny and a purpose the others can’t comprehend. And I know what it means, you have to be prepared, you have to ready yourself for the moment, the moment you come to be.’

She shoots and hits the target, a natural he tells her, proud. She is brimming with joy to make him proud, to be one who evokes pride. It is something she had never thought she would experience, something she never thought she could be.

‘And again,’ he says, his warmth enveloping her, as though at any moment he might not just help her aim, but take her finally, finally in his arms, the embrace she yearns for, dreams of, needs…

Dreams of…a blanket of darkness falls and the daydream slips to real sleep, and her head nods and she falls from her chair to the aisle between the school desks. When her body and head hit the floor it hurts, the sharp pain waking her, stealing her away from her daydream of Damien, back to the world. When he spoke to her of learning to protect herself she’d felt wrapped in his warmth, and this daydream was just her mind’s way of regaining that sense. But now it brought her something else. First the pain of a harsh floor, then the far harsher pain of being seen by this group, her classmates, none of which looked on her with a moment of kindness.

Even David, she saw, as she struggled to sit back up and stop herself from crying as the harsh laugher rang around her. Even David was laughing this time, any residual sympathy he might have once felt for her disappearing into her own stupidity, her own absurdity. A pratfall makes a prat, after all.

She shuts her eyes, but seconds too late not to see the particularly vicious, triumphant look of Jasmine, and if she could shut her ears she would, just so she didn’t have to hear the words that witch-bitch said next.

‘Might as well stay on the floor, it’s where you belong!’

Eighteen

Lisa took the day off from the bookstore, claiming a migraine and getting the casual staff member Bruce to watch over the business for her in her absence. But in truth it was not a migraine that kept her away from work. Tonight was to be the night Damien joined her for dinner, and all the promise that entailed. After bustling Mandy out of the house to go on the overnight excursion with her classmates – and having stopped up her ears to her daughter’s pleas not to go given how horrible school was- she had felt exhausted and knew she needed time to relax and to prepare if the night was to fulfil its promise.

She hadn’t been sleeping well for weeks now, and that last nightmare where she ran from her own daughter was so horrible she couldn’t even bear to think about it in the daylight lest somehow the sun’s rays shed too much light on what it might be saying about her and her relationship with her child.

Normally she might have talked it out with Susan, but she refused to even see her for the moment. She had no tolerance for her friend’s selfish and derogatory obsession with Damien, and was in no mood to indulge her, even if it was simply for the opportunity of having someone to talk about Mandy with. Underneath, though, she was vexed and did feel bad for her daughter. She had almost given in and told Mandy to stay, that she would ring and say she was sick, and save her from the additional indignity of a night spent in the company of schoolmates who clearly rejected her.

But to do that would rob her of her dinner with Damien, or at the very least rob her of the opportunity for them to dine alone, and all that might entail. And how could she do that, she told herself, she had so little joy herself these days, and she suffered too. Everyone needed to find their happiness, Mandy included, and the one should not demand the sacrifice of the other.

There was that term again – sacrifice. Why did everything feel like that these days? Why did it always have to be one or the other, not both?

Still, her guilt robbed her of the rest she wanted, and more than once she almost rang the school to say she wanted her daughter home. She saw herself doing more, in fact, storming in to the principal’s office to tell the tales of the bullying her daughter endured and demand someone did something about it.

‘This is the sort of thing that causes tragedies,’ she saw herself saying in her mind’s eye. But equally she saw her daughter suffering even worse for her intervention. Parents never could save their children from bullying. She knew that, deep in her bones, and while she wanted to do something, anything, to stop feeling like the worst mother on earth right now, nothing rose beyond mere speculation and consideration. The afternoon passed into evening with little sleep or rest, but she remained alone and Mandy remained at school, and that was an end to it.

Finally, she busied herself with cooking. Something simple but elegant was in order: steak with trimmings, fine red wine, and a crème brulee for dessert. If they even got to dessert,she thought to herself, shivering in happy anticipation. And at that moment the doorbell rang, and she hurried to the door, checking her reflection briefly in the hallway mirror before opening the door to see Damien standing there.

‘Come in!’ she said, delighted.

He smiled, ‘Thank you, the last thing I wanted to be was just a dweller on the threshold.’

She smiled back at him, ignoring the strangeness of his words. Sometimes he spoke in a manner that made one think of an earlier era, a bygone one. My god, she thought, it’s a good thing Susan isn’t here or she’d be using it as proof he was the man in the old photos. An ageless man, with the manners of an earlier age.

She fussed over the cooking and he fussed over her. Their conversation came easily, almost too easily, and she felt giddy with the wine. Every sense in her body was alight and tingling, so that after the meal, as they brushed beside each other in the hallway as she came back from taking dishes to the kitchen, she melted within his embrace as he made his move. For long seconds she just felt sheltered, tender, in his embrace, then she raised her face to his and looked into his depthless eyes, and accepted his first kiss.

I am falling, she thought, I am falling like a star falls in the sky. Down to the limitless all.

Moments later he asked where the bedroom was, and she led him, hand in hand, deliriously happy, to the room. She didn’t even think to pull the blinds, for it was hardly likely anyone was out on Mercy Street tonight in any case, and even to do that would take her away from him for too long. She followed his lead, each caress and embrace travelling deeper, and somehow she found herself without cloths, without care, without inhibition, meeting flesh with flesh, a passion and a heat, till they were one.

And not once did Lisa look outside the window, and not once did she see they were not alone, not alone at all. In the darkness of the street, seeing them with total clarity from the lamplight in the bedroom, seeing every move of every embrace, every kiss, was a horrified and devastated witness. A witness who fell back with each move, shaking her head, tears streaming from her cheeks. And these were cheeks that had been tear-stained already this night, this night when the bullying continued apace, to the point that she had fled the auditorium at school where the school sleep over ‘study night’ was in full flight.

Mandy watched her mother with Damien, every last young dream of her pitiful, lost little life extinguished moment by moment. By the time she could no longer see them as they had fallen on the bed, out of sight from the window, Mandy was beyond thought, beyond feeling.

She turned and ran again, and ran and ran, till she was behind No 6 Mercy Lane, up the hill, just looking at the tree, the Hanged Girl tree. And when she looked up at the cloudy night, no stars were in sight. No stars at all.

Nineteen

Early the next morning the school revellers were awaking. Little real studying had occurred the evening before, and perhaps even the principal would admit that was not really the intended or expected outcome of the event. It was more about class room bonding, a sense of adventure and team spirit which was less aimed at academic outcomes than it was at some form of social engineering.

The principal believed in the refining fire of social exchange. He told anyone who would listen he learned everything about politics and power that he ever needed to learn at high school. And nothing, he would say, has changed since my day. We should not just equip our children for study, we should equip them for life, and no-one does that better than they themselves, and the law of the jungle that is the school group system.

Not that the principal was there the next morning, nor had he visited the night before. And the two teachers left in charge had just left soon after 10pm as they had an assignation of their own they wanted to fulfil. All the teenagers knew about those teachers and their ill-hid affair, and they revelled indeed when predictions proved true and they were left to their devices. Early in the piece they’d had some sport at the expense of the ghost girl, Mandy, but the prissy little idiot had fled in tears. The throng turned to other lesser mortals, those who had joined in against Mandy so they wouldn’t be targeted themselves, now learning in her absence they’d be targeted anyway. And so it goes, and so it went, and finally the last of them fell asleep, and all were still happily slumbering at 9am when the doors of the auditorium opened with a decisive bang.

The first to wake up were David and Jasmine, who had slept the last hours of the night in each other’s arms and positioned themselves on the relative comfort of some gym matts nearest to the door. Jasmine grimaced as she sat up, adjusting her eyes to the light of the morning. Then she saw the drab figure in the doorway, and didn’t see enough to really understand, or react, but just enough to fall back to her usual diatribes.

‘Mandy the ghost girl is back!’ she spat, ‘Not enough sense to just stay away!’

Jasmine turned, hugged to David for a moment, then continued, ‘Or perhaps ghost girls have no choice but to haunt people.’

Then she noticed David had gone rigid, looking at Mandy, and then he started to shake. So she turned, looking again, wondering why, just in time to see a rifle muzzle in her face. A second later a loud bang woke the others, groggy and stupid into the blood-red morning. The sound of the gun was huge, reverberating like a cannon shot within the auditorium walls, momentarily surprising even Mandy as she surveyed the immediate impact of her coming.  Jasmine’s face literally disappeared in a second, the last expression she would ever have being one of confused disdain and concern as her identity dissolved with the blast into blood, meat, bone and sinew.  A moment later she slumped down to the floor, next to David.

‘Might as well stay on the floor, it’s where you belong’ Mandy said, amusing herself.

‘Mandy,’ David started, trying to sit up properly to reach her somehow, but his false friendship was too late. It was all too late. Destiny had arrived, come calling. She’d realised that sometime in the night and so she’d gone down to Damien’s garage and got out his rifles. She remembered asking him how he had them, given the gun laws, and he’d said, ‘There are always ways around laws.’ It had felt like a special secret between them.

And she’d been a natural student, the perfect natural shot, and Damien had said it was like it had always been meant to be. Like she’d been born to hold a rifle, and to shoot. Like now. Shooting David, his pretty face also blasting off in the impact, and then she turned, and continued.

By now, the others were standing, grabbing clothes, bags, and trying to run. Two headed to get past her, through the door, and two more shots took them out, the arterial spray from the throat of one where the bullet lodged painting the yellow auditorium walls with a sickly, garish red.  Another student literally slipped on the blood across the floor near one of these fallen ones, landing right on top the mauled body below.  She started to scream, hysterical, no longer aware that this was like affixing a target on her own back.  Moments later the screaming stopped and she lay still, the two students a kind of bloodied sandwich on the floor.

Now everyone was screaming, and they were stupid. They were all stupid. She was in her element, hunting them down, being the one to be feared. Three more were taken out as they tried to rush her. No-one tried that after that. Some attempted to hide, others cowered, trying to make themselves smaller. She shot anther time, missing for the only time, then quickly, expertly, reloaded the rifle. Everyone there was too stunned to stop her.

A group had gathered like a line at one wall, like an execution parade offered up to her: one, two, three, four, five. So perfect, how could she refuse such an offering? Each shot rang out in the air, punctuating the screaming and crying like a drum beat for a discordant punk anthem. They fell one by one and strangely none moved, none tried to escape the deadly line, shocked had relieved them of all rational thought and they simply waited to die.

By now she’d walked further into the hated room, and she heard others running towards the auditorium. The adults were coming, coming far too late. Three teachers stood, frightened but resolute, in the doorway. She could hear one of them trying to talk to her. To her side one of the teenagers tried to lunge towards her and she shot him, severing an arm as easily as cutting a grape from its stem. He bellowed, fell down, enraged and in pain. She didn’t care, hardly heard any of it anymore.  Perhaps she was in shock too.

One of the teachers was trying to walk towards her. She looked at him sorrowfully. Clearly he did not understand. It was all over, it was all over now.

It had been over the moment she and her mother had moved to this town. It had only been waiting for this. Damien had shown her, had told her, and now she knew, she knew too.

And she positioned the rifle beneath her, pointed upwards, opened her mouth to receive the muzzle like one might a lover, and shot her own head off before the teacher could reach her.

All over and done.

Twenty

Lisa woke alone, to the sound of police sirens outside her house. She barely had time to register the sad loneliness of waking without Damien there, not even knowing he had left her in the night or what to think or feel about that, or to cover herself properly with a robe before the door was banging hard and insistent.

When she opened the door two police stood stern and worried on the doorstep. She had the absurd wish to tell them to come in, to not be dwellers on the threshold, but words weren’t really forming properly in her mind. She knew somehow, knew something was wrong, very wrong, and was just starting to tell her mind this must be another nightmare, when she noticed the angry group gathering behind the police

Someone threw rocks at her house, smashing through the front windows, and the police looked back, glowering a warning, and the crowd reluctantly held back, murmuring of discontent and simmering rage.

The police started talking to her, telling her something about Mandy. It was something about Mandy. Something about guns, and the school auditorium, and deaths, lots of deaths. She was having flashbacks of one of her first nightmares, of yellow walls splashed with red, splashed with red.

‘We understand your daughter left the school event early and no-one knows where she was in the night,’ one was saying.

I didn’t know, I didn’t know where she was either, Lisa is thinking, I was too busy,too busy with…with..Damien…I didn’t know where my daughter was at night, I didn’t know!

‘But she returned early this morning with a rifle. Do you have any idea where she might have gotten hold of a rifle ma’am?’

And there’s a memory tugging at her, something about Damien saying that he wouldn’t suggest Mandy used herself as a weapon. But what about other weapons? Other weapons like a gun?

The crowd was getting rowdy again. She vaguely started to understand it was parents, parents dealing with rage and unimaginable loss. The police were telling her that her daughter killed over ten teenagers and wounded up to three others. These were the parents, clearly.

She is so stunned, so shocked, she can’t even move or process this, nor even take in the next thing they tell her, that her daughter then killed herself. It takes a full three minutes for that to register, and then for the wooziness to hit, and the blackness to come as she falls to the floor in a faint.

Over the days to come she has too much time to think. The police have taken her to another house, a safe house they call it, to avoid the wrath of the parents. They have asked her so many questions, so many, and there were answers for none. At one point she looked up at them and said, ‘You see, death follows a sacrifice,’ and they shake their heads at her, not understanding.

‘What is it about that street?” one of them asked the other, ‘All that death.’

‘Wrong name for the street,’ the other agreed, ‘No mercy there.’

All that death, and no mercy there. What had Susan said, that the Death card wouldn’t presage just one death, it would be many? Or something like that. If it was to fit the theory she had. Only now, it wasn’t just her theory anymore, it was Lisa’s, but that was far, far too late.

Just as Lisa was when she went to demand answers from Damien, embracing the theory and the sense he was the still point, the catalyst, the terrible magus with his tarot deaths at the centre of it all. For he was gone, almost as though he had never been there. The ‘for rent’ sign on the house even looked old, not like it had been put up in the past few days.

This feeling increased when she tried to talk to the police about him, saying she thought he gave Mandy the guns and taught her how to shoot.

‘Didn’t even know someone was living there,’ one said.

‘Well, he’s not now,’ Lisa replied, defeated. He’s not now.

Days later again, Susan visited her, having gotten the support of the police as perhaps Lisa’s only friend now in the whole town. By then Lisa’s job was lost, but she didn’t care. She had no money but somehow she’d have to leave, and she would leave, if only she could find some energy, some way to move past the guilt and the grief. Susan offered help, both financially and emotionally, and she took both like a greedy, needy child.

‘I’m sorry,’ Lisa said, ‘I should have listened.’

‘Hush,” said Susan, ‘It was only a stupid theory. It’s not your fault. I’m sorry I even suggested anything like it at all. It can’t have anything to do with this, it just can’t.’

‘No,’ Lisa responded, her voice like ash, ‘Not just a theory. I’ve heard talk, they want retribution, the townsfolk, they say they want balance. So I checked, and the next card from Death, it’s Temperance, and it’s all about balance. But you see, they want me to suffer, or suffer more, for that balance, and I can’t let them have that. I can’t, don’t you see. Not that I want to avoid suffering, I’ll always be suffering now, it’s not that, it’s just I have to stop that card coming to be, do you see?”

Susan shook her head, bewildered, not following her friend’s line of thought at all.

‘It’s the cards, you see,’ Lisa intoned, though she already knew all hope was gone, ‘After Temperance it’s the Devil, that’s when the Devil comes.’

‘So they can’t have their balance,’ Susan responded, understanding at last, but too late it seemed, for both of them together. ‘Because otherwise, it’s the end’

The End

 

 

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