The Darker Half - chaps 7 & 8
Posted: 14 February 2018
Word Count: 2708
Summary: Another two chaps from my novel in progress. Chap 7 is told from the POV of Alec and is meant to show how jealousy is warping his mind and in Chap 8, Anna gets a pet and the seeds of tragedy are sown.
It was too hot. The sun was much too hot. It was burning the top of his head and his back felt as if his skin was bubbling, despite the olive oil his mother had rubbed into it. If only it would rain. He took a quick glance at the sky, pure blue with not a wisp of cloud. He blinked. He’d made the mistake of staring at the sun and now he couldn’t see properly because of millions of tiny black suns bobbing in front of his eyes. He squeezed them half shut and peered longingly towards his sun hat abandoned in the sand where he’d thrown it after being told he couldn’t have an ice cream.
‘If you think,’ his mother had said, ‘that I’m going to slog all the way down the beach to buy you a lolly just when I’ve got meself comfy, then you’ve got another think coming. Ask yer Dad, or go and get it yourself. I’ll give you the money.’
But his Dad was already asleep, sprawled in a deckchair, a hanky tied on top of his head and a newspaper over his face; Alec could hear him snoring. He scowled. She knew very well he couldn’t plough through the sand with this horrible metal thing on his leg. It would take him forever and everyone would stare. His Mum finished smearing oil all over her arms and legs and turned her glistening face towards the sky, her skirt tugged high over knees. She’d burn, thought Alec scornfully, she always did and never learned. He hated the beach but although he’d whined, grizzled and dragged behind, it hadn’t made any difference. His mother could have had cotton wool stuffed into her ears for all the notice she took but then, she liked nothing better than lazing around, especially in the sun. As usual, the minute they’d got to their chosen spot, Anna had run down to the sea leaving Alec behind. There was absolutely nothing for him to do except try to make sillycastles out of dry sand that collapsed as soon as he turned his bucket over. It was so boring. So he’d just sat and buried both legs in a sandy grave so no-one could see his bad one and now he was stuck and couldn’t even reach his hat. He’d probably get sunstroke. He’d get sunstroke and die and then everyone would be sorry. Except he had a sneaking suspicion that they wouldn’t. His mum might be, a bit. At least she’d make a lot of noise about it but his Dad and Anna would probably be pleased.
Where was Anna? He squinted to where he could just see the water, a glittering line twinkling in the distance. Then, he saw the black shapes of three figures digging in the firm sand at the edge of the water and recognised one of them. She’d found some friends already. As he watched, one of the smaller shapes, a boy he thought, detached itself from the group and ran towards the sea a bucket in his hands. With all his might, Alec willed him to trip and end up face downwards in the sand. He began to grin at the thought but the child skipped into the waves and out again without falling once and Alec’s scowl returned. He looked at the ocean, it was flat and still with just a few small waves rippling in and out, pushed by the tide. He prayed for an enormous tidal wave to appear from out of nowhere, surge towards his sister and wash her out to sea Or, better still, a shark. A sinister black triangle cutting through the water heading straight towards her. He imagined people screaming and scattering and the dead silence that would follow as the shark retreated with its prey. That would be so good.
He flinched as a sudden gust of wind whirled along the beach, blowing sand into his face. Some got in his eyes and without thinking, he rubbed them with a hand that was even sandier. The grit stung his eyes and made them water and he let out a piercing howl.
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake. What have you done now?’
He heard the rustle of newspaper and, with his eyes streaming, looked up to see his father standing in front of him. ‘Stop rubbing them, you’ll make it worse. Now, open up and keep still.’
He felt his chin being lifted and the tip of his father’s hanky, moistened with spit, probing the corners of his eyes.
‘Now blink, hard and keep on blinking. What are you doing sitting here anyway? You’ll burn in that sun. Get in the shade, or go and play with your sister.’
Alec shook his head, tears flowing freely now. He hated himself for being so weak and felt worse as slime began to run from his nose. His father wiped his face and pulled him out of his sandy tomb.
‘Right, now keep out of the sun. Do you want an ice cream?’
Alec watched his father’s broad back as he trudged across the beach towards the ice cream van. He’d asked for strawberry but he bet his father came back with vanilla. His Dad got everything wrong. His mum said so. He heard them rowing about it at night. His Mum didn’t like the house they were in now. She said it was too small and poky and that if his Dad hadn’t lost the contract they could have stayed in their old house. Alec agreed. He’d liked it where they were before, there were woods at the bottom of the garden and you could do what you liked in the woods because there was no-one to tell you to stop.
If his father did come back with a vanilla cone, he’d throw it in the sand. He hated vanilla. In fact, if he hadn’t have wanted an ice so much – he would have thrown it down whatever the flavour, just to see the look on his father’s face. He liked making his father angry it gave Alec another reason to hate him. And, he did hate him. He hated him because his Dad liked Anna the best, and he knew why too. It was because she was clever and had two straight legs and he didn’t. He ground his teeth, remembering how he’d overheard their skinny neighbour describe him as that ‘poor crippled boy who lives next door.’ He hated her as well, the ugly old thing. Alec sat and brooded about what he’d like to do to them all if ever he got the chance.
At last he spotted his father’s figure gradually getting bigger as he walked towards him. He was holding four cones, two in each hand. Then, Alec watched in dismayed disbelief as his father totally ignored him and veered towards the group of children playing by the edge of the sea. He saw Anna running up to him and claiming her cone and his father handing one each to her playmates. Alec clenched his fists. The ices must be already melting, there’d be nothing left for him except a soggy cornet by the time his father arrived. Stupid, stupid, stupid man; he started to grind his teeth again. Anna always came first and Dad always gave her that special look whenever she spoke to him. Then, there were all those evenings they spent together in Dad’s workshop. What did they do in there? Alex had been in there once or twice and it was nothing special. A grimy bare little room with no plaster or paper on the walls. Just a workbench and two shabby old armchairs by a stove that burned wood, yet they both spent hours in there every evening. He’d never been invited in after that last time and again that wasn’t fair, he’d only been trying help. His father’s worktop had been such a mess with nails and screws scattered all over the place and Alec had only been trying to tidy them up. It wasn’t his fault that he’d tripped and spilled them all over the floor. His mouth turned down and his eyes began to water again as he remembered the hiss of his father’s breath.
‘Oh, for Heaven’s sake Alec. Now, look what you’ve done. Just sit down and keep quiet if you want to stay.’
Alec hadn’t dared look at his sister, he was sure she was smirking. Instead, he’d blundered out of the door, went back into the house, climbed the stairs to his bedroom and lay in the dark. Since then, he’d never set foot in the place. All the same, he ached to know what they did in there night after night. Maybe they talked about him. Maybe they were plotting to kill him. Recently he’d got into the habit of spying on them. In spite of his bad leg he’d got quite good at walking quietly. The Creeping Shadow he liked to think of himself as he slipped out of the kitchen door and into the alleyway leading to the workshop. Slowly, he’d inch up to the door and press his ear against the peeling wood. So far, he hadn’t heard much, just the creaking of chairs, the sound of his father’s saw and the low mumble of the radio in the background. But they had some sort of secret, they must have and he’d give a week’s pocket money to find out what it was.
It had started to snow as she’d been walking home from school, fat soft flakes drifting down from out of a grey, polka dotted sky. It was still snowing now, she could see blobs of white sliding down the bare windows of the workshop. She shivered, it was getting colder, there would be icicles hanging from the eaves by morning. As if he’d read her mind, her father put down his book, opened the doors of the wood burning stove and fed its hungry red mouth with another log.
‘That better?’ He glanced at her, his eyebrows raised.
She nodded, listening to the fire spit as it ate the log and went back to her homework, trying to concentrate. It was maths and she hated maths. She gazed at the page for so long, the figures started to blur. It was no good, she just couldn’t do it. Her Dad was good at sums, perhaps he could help.
‘Dad’, she began, then stopped as she heard something. Her head cocked, she listened. A few seconds later, it came again, a soft scrabbling sound.
‘Have we got mice?’
Her father removed his pipe and grinned. Wouldn’t be surprised, but don’t tell your Mum. She’d have a blue fit.’
Then there was a different sound, a soft tap at the door and this time they both heard it. Her father looked thoughtful.
‘But, mice don’t usually knock to come in…’
He got up and walked towards the door. Anna heard a sharp intake of breath as he opened it, then he disappeared. ‘Oy’, she heard him call. When he returned, he was holding a cardboard box, one that rocked from side to side as he carried it to the table. ‘What have we got here then?’ Opening the lid, he peered inside.
‘Oh –oh. Looks like someone’s given us an early Christmas present.’
‘What is it Dad?’
‘This’…her father reached inside and turned round to show her.
Anna felt her eyes widen. ‘A kitten!’
A tiny scrap of silver-grey fur, it was dwarfed by her father’s hand. Her father looked closer. ‘Poor little mite. Still got its eyes closed. Should never have been taken away from its mother. Doubt if it will survive, love.’
Anna felt her eyes moisten. She reached out with a finger and stroked the kitten’s fur. It felt as light and silky as dandelion fluff and underneath, she could feel its bony body vibrating like a tiny motor. ‘I think it’s cold, Dad.’
‘That’s not surprising. Run inside and get me a couple of towels, some milk and a small saucepan. Be quick now and don’t bother to disturb your mother. Okay?’
Anna didn’t need to be told twice. As she slipped into the kitchen she could hear the opening jingle of ‘Some mothers do ‘ave ‘em’ coming from the living room and she breathed a sigh of relief. Taking a quick peek through the open door, she saw her mother and Alec curled up together on the settee; it was one of their favourite programmes and she knew they wouldn’t stir for at least half an hour. Grabbing what she needed, she rushed back to her father.
Lining the box with a warmed towel, her father placed it and the kitten underneath the stove.
‘Right, that should keep it warm. I wonder if it’s hungry.’
He poured a little milk in the saucepan and set it on top of the stove until it was tepid. Testing it with his finger he grunted with satisfaction.
‘That should do it. Now…….’
Gently, he pulled the box out from under the stove, dipped his finger into the milk and held it in front of the kitten. Anna held her breath and watched. She saw its tiny nose quiver and almost immediately, a flash of pink tongue darted out of its mouth and licked at the milk. Her father repeated the process until the kitten was sucking at his finger greedily. At last, it turned it’s head away and yawned and Anna caught a glimpse of minute pointed teeth. Then it curled itself into a tight ball and went to sleep.
‘Well, that went better than I thought. Maybe it will make it after all. Just a minute love.’
Her father replaced the box under the stove, straightened and went out of the door. When he came back, his face was grim.
‘There are some footprints in the snow outside but I can’t tell where they go. Not that it makes any difference. That poor little scrap was surplus to requirements anyway.’ He shrugged. ‘Oh well, at least someone cared enough to let us know it was there.’
‘Is it ours now then Dad?’
Her father sighed and looked at her. ‘Anna, you know how your mother is about animals. She’s allergic to them sweetheart, remember?’
That’s what her mother said, but really Anna thought it was just because she didn’t like them. Couldn’t be bothered with them. ‘A tie’, she’d said. Anna had wanted a puppy once but her mother had refused. Totally, even though Alec had also been keen and he usually got his way with Mum. Looking back on it Anna thought it had been a good thing. Alec would have teased the puppy to death and she couldn’t always have been there to protect it.
But this time, she pleaded. ‘Just for a little while, Dad. Just until it gets stronger.’ Then, she had a brainwave. ‘Anyway, Mum never comes in here. If we’re careful, she need never know.’
‘Don’t think that’s possible, love.’
But Anna knew how to get round her father and at last he agreed, partly because she suspected his heart had been touched by the tiny creature licking his finger so trustingly. He’d always been a big softy when it came to animals, if it wasn’t for Mum, she thought, they’d have a house full of strays.
‘It’ll need a lot of looking after, you realise. For the first few weeks, it’ll need feeding every two hours, night and day. I can do most of it but you’ll have to do your share’.
‘Ok, Dad. I will don’t worry.’ She jumped up and down with excitement, she’d got a pet at last and she also realised it was here to stay. Although Dad liked a quiet life and left the running of the household mostly to Mum, he could be stubborn when he wanted. He’d stand up to Mum if she demanded they get rid of it, she was quite certain of that.
But when, many years later, she was forced to remember what happened afterwards, she realised that neither she, nor her father, had given any thought to Alec.
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