The Unexpected Visitor

The door vibrated in its lock as Dale Jennings thumped it. The red residue he left on the door reminded him fresh blood still covered his hand. He hurriedly wiped his knuckles clean on the back of his leg, ruining the jean’s blue denim. His mind raced with the morning’s events as he stood and waited for the door to be answered. He was still panting from his sprint over to 112 Grove Drive, a run made all the more difficult by the closeness of the air; a thunderstorm was indeed on the way. He knocked again and then bent down, dropping his head between his knees, breathing in deeply. It may have indeed been more humid than hell, but he knew part of the reason he could barely stand was due to the state he’d let himself get in recently. From college ball player to the town’s designated drunk, all in the space of three years. He knew this was how most of Netherdale’s residents viewed him – hell, it was how he viewed himself. A drunk and a layabout and a lousy boyfriend, he thought. The first two he would worry about another time, but right now he was going to rectify the last part of his depressive self-description. He thumped on the door again and prepared himself for it to open.

* * * *

Claire Summers swiftly applied a final layer of lip gloss as the door sounded below. James was early, and he was never early, so his arrival had taken her slightly by surprise. Thoughts of reasons for an early arrival were quickly washed away by those of his hands, his lips, his other regions. She bounced up from her bedroom floor and slipped out onto the landing. She paused for a moment, checking her hair one final time in the mirror at the top of the stairs. If her parents were home she knew they’d both be moaning at how long she’d spent getting ready. “I hope you’re going to pay for that electricity,” her dad would shout. “They’re not worth all that effort, sweetie,” would be her mother’s two-cents worth. Not today though. She had the house to herself and a sensationally hot boy coming over. She skipped down the stairs and approached the front door, by which time she had already convinced herself nothing that continually felt this right could ever be wrong. She’d hidden it from Dale this long, another night wouldn’t hurt.

* * * *

The sight of Claire Summers’ sultry smile, so often the cause of a rise in his pants, did nothing today but cause a rise in Dale Jennings’ fury. As he felt his eyebrows constrict and his eyes narrow, her face quickly became devoid of feature. He had never seen this look on his girlfriend’s face before, but right now, with the mood he was in, he liked it.

“Not who you expected?” he drolly offered, not giving her the chance to attack first in any verbal joust.

She had a notoriously silver tongue, something he’d yesterday learned many of the boys in Netherdale had been on the welcoming receivership of. It was one of the things which had attracted him to her in the first place, all those years ago. He was the captain of the football team, she was the impossibly-cute, overly-popular president of the student body; they’d been a match made in small-town high-school heaven. How times had changed. Her silver tongue was now, at this precise moment, something he actively despised. He watched as she struggled to find a word, her lips opening but finding nothing but the empty space of the stupidly-humid air between them.

* * * *

It did not happen often, but Claire Summers did not know what to say. She prided herself on her quick-wit and ability to turn a phrase when it was most needed. But right now, as her boyfriend – or, as it was quickly dawning on her, soon to be ex-boyfriend – stared at her with those increasingly familiar angry eyes, she did not know how to respond. She knew she’d been rumbled, she knew that much, but the next best appropriate course of action eluded her. Should she play the victim, play to Dale’s admittedly hard to access sensitive side, or go on the offensive, blaming him for forcing her away with his too-frequent drunken nights and increasingly bad temper? The look on his face and the fury lurking just behind those big, brown eyes suggested an attack on his behaviour was probably not the best course of action.

“I, I…,” she mumbled.

If she’d known those would be the last words she would ever utter, she would have tried an awful lot harder to make them more memorable.

* * * *

“Oh, for crying out loud!” Brenda Bittles squawked, shocked at the sudden burst of feathers and beak around her.

The nest of birds she had so patiently spent two-hours drawing were now making manic tracks across her garden’s skyline, cutting through the air like physics-ignorant shooting stars. Up, down, left, right, they spread out all around her, away from the nest and the focus of her drawing. After a brief moment of situational recalibration, Brenda had composed herself enough to question the sound she, and the now scattered birds, had just heard. It sounded very much like it came from the Summers’ house next door, although Brenda was sure – or as sure as her fading memory would nowadays allow her – that they were away at the moment. She placed down her 9B graphite pencil and attempted to force herself out of her comfy garden chair. The voracious complaints from her joints stopped an investigation before it had even begun. She slumped back down and started to draw a new picture, having already forgotten she had just heard a gunshot.

Tales From the Split Worlds: Missing – Emma Newman

Hey guys. I’m delighted to be able to present to you a short story from a very talented (and lovely) author by the name of Emma Newman. Emma’s previous work can be found here and here. Emma herself can be found here.

Anyway, to the story. Hope you enjoy (clue: you will*). Over to you, Em…

This is the fifteenth tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like me to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.

Missing

Sue watched the photo of her husband appearing again and again in the printer tray as she waited to be connected. The room stank of toner and her head ached.

“Mrs Walker? Sorry to keep you waiting. How are you bearing up?”

The police officer’s voice was softer than her husband’s. “Is there any news?” She was bored of describing how she felt.

“None I’m afraid. We’ve sent your husband’s details to all the relevant departments, and I understand you’ve contacted the local press.”

“I didn’t know what else to do. I’m printing posters. I’m going to take them round town later.”

“Good idea. I’ll let you know the moment anything comes in.”

“Thanks.” She put the phone down, looking at the printed sheets, reminded of the countless missing cat posters she’d seen in recent months. Her husband would soon be just another face pinned to trees and fading in shop windows, ignored.

Her son squealed next door, then her daughter cackled. Sue hunched forwards, resting her head in her hands, waiting for the inevitable as their footsteps came to the doorway.

“Mum! Jen put the toad in my bed!”

“I didn’t, he just hopped in there by himself. He must’ve wanted to be with someone else small and warty.”

“I’m not-”

“Shut up, both of you!” Sue didn’t turn to face them. “For God’s sake Jen, leave him alone and get rid of that bloody frog.”

“It’s a toad.”

“I don’t-” a loud splosh and a spray of tea interrupted her.

“Did you see that?!” Jen cheered as Sue leaped out of her chair and away from the desk. “He landed right in the cup!”

The mug wobbled and then tipped over, spilling tea dregs and toad onto the desk. It croaked. “Get that thing out of my office!” Sue yelled, repulsed by its warty sliminess.

Jen collected it with the theatrical sigh perfected by fourteen year olds and stomped out of the room. Matthew lingered in the doorway, looking at the posters. “Are you okay Mum?”

“I’ve got to make a phone call,” she said, not wanting to show him how upset she was.

He nodded and shut the door as she reluctantly picked up the phone. The number was the last on the list for a reason.

It rang enough times for her to hope that no-one was home before being picked up. “Hello?”

Sue cleared her throat. “Is this Kim?”

“Yes.”

“This is Sue… Gary’s wife.”

There was silence, then the scrape of a chair. “What do you want? I got the solicitor’s letter, I thought it was all supposed to go through them now.”

“It’s about Gary.”

“Oh my God, has-”

“He’s missing,” Sue said it quickly, dreading the words she’d spoken so many times. “This is the fourth day and I wondered if you’ve seen him, whether he came to visit… um… Natalie.”

“No. He hasn’t seen her for months. What do you mean by missing?”

From anyone else it would have been a stupid question, but Sue understood the subtext; she was asking if he’d abandoned them, like he had his first family. “He didn’t turn up at work, all his things are still here, his credit cards and bank account haven’t been used. The car’s still on the drive.”

“God. Are the police-”

“They know. He wasn’t in contact with you… directly, in the last few days?”

“No.”

“I’m sorry things have got difficult with the child maintenance payments. We didn’t want it to be like this. The fallout from divorce is messy.”

“Gone through it have you?”

“Yes, actually, I have.” There was a yell from the kitchen and then the sound of running up the stairs. “I’ve got to go.”

“Let me know if anything… if he…”

“I will.” She ended the call. So many sentences had been unfinished in the last few days, so many sympathetic looks given, so many empty expressions of support. A thousand times she’d imagined him lying dead in a nearby ditch, or slumped in a drunken heap down an alleyway or even on a plane to a foreign land and a new life. None of those made any sense.

The kids were climbing the second set of stairs into the converted attic. Gary finished it two days before he disappeared, the garden was the next project, they’d talked about a holiday too, hardly topics a man about to run away would discuss. There were no signs of a struggle, his car keys, wallet and a pile of his clothes were left by the bed, converting the house into a modern day Mary Celeste.

The kids were chasing each other by the sound of it. They’d been running riot since she’d been obsessed with finding him. The last of the missing person posters landed in the printer tray as the doorbell rang. She gathered them up, ran down the stairs and opened the door to find a man dressed in a suit and raincoat, his face was the ugliest she’d ever seen.

“Sorry to disturb you,” he said, no smile, no warmth in his manner. “I’m an environmental officer from the local council.” He waved an ID card at her, but she was too distracted by his strange lumpy nose to take it in. “Have you had any problems with local wildlife in the past few days, amphibians in particular?”

“What?”

“Any problems with frogs or toads? We’ve had a couple of reports of them coming into people’s houses.” He noticed the posters. “Someone’s missing?”

“My husband.”

He extended a hand. “I could put one up in my office if you wish?”

She gave one to him. “Thank you. About the toad problem, we found one in the house a few days ago. Where are they coming from?”

“Population spike,” he said flatly. Everything he said was flat, there was a complete absence of emotion. “When did you find it?”

“Four days ago. It-”

A scream high up in the house stopped her, something streaked down from the sky and landed with a terrible splut less than a metre from the man.

It was the toad.

The kids were hammering down the stairs, Sue stepped out to look at the poor creature, its guts spilling out onto the driveway. The visitor peered down at it.

“This is the toad you mentioned, the one found in your house four days ago?”

“It was,” Sue replied as Matthew and Jen pushed past her.

“Matthew threw him out of the skylight!” Jen sobbed and promptly punched her younger brother on the arm.

“She was putting him down my shirt!” Matthew said, staring at the dead creature. “I didn’t mean to do it.”

“I’ll be off now,” the man said. “Nothing to be done here.”

Sue watched him go as the kids squabbled. He paused at the end of the drive, screwed the poster into a tight ball and dropped it in his coat pocket without glancing back. She looked down at the toad and somehow knew, with a certainty she couldn’t explain, that she would never see her husband again.

Thanks for hosting Jack!

I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com – you can also sign up to get an extra story and get each new story delivered to your inbox every week. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x

*See?

Ten Minutes

Hello all!

It’s been a week since my last post, as I’ve tweaked this next story a few times.  I let the inital version ‘stew’ for a few days and when I revisited it I felt it needed a slight change.  I hope you enjoy the final outcome.

Before I post the story, I feel it necessary to point you in the following direction: http://www.splitworlds.com/stories/

Emma Newman is an author I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with on Twitter (@EmApocalyptic) and I’ve really enjoyed reading her short stories.  Her Split Worlds tales provided the inspiration for what you are about to read, so may I (stubbornly) recommend that, once you are finished here, you go and give the above site a little peruse.

Anyway, here’s this week’s story.  As always, I’d love it if you could leave me a small comment below, or send me a tweet with your thoughts.

Thanks!

Ten Minutes

As the bus pulled up to the stop, Peter looked down and checked his watch: 11:01am, it read.  He’d be late again.  Stepping to one side before she had even summoned the strength to stand up, he allowed the fragile old lady to enter first.  The driver gave him a cheery welcome and took his fare, just as he had done many times before.  And just like the many times Peter had used this bus before, the same old people sat in the same old seats.  He was used to it all by now.

Here we go again, he thought.

He took his usual seat near the back, just tucked away on the left hand side.  He liked being able to have a look around and observe all of the little things happening on the bus, without being seen himself.  He was in his own little world, looking out at the real one.

Sat on the opposite side of the bus, at around two o’clock, was a beautiful, petite brunette, who he had admired many times before.  He knew her name was Kate, but he wouldn’t introduce himself using this knowledge, as he knew she would not remember him.  Being so close to her, but being unable to speak, pained him.  But this was not their time, something he had very little of anyway.

And so he shifted his gaze away from Kate and towards the front of the bus.  As the bus made its way down the always busy and heavily-populated Frogmoor St, Peter reached forward and gripped the bar in front of him.  As the front wheel on the driver’s side dipped down into a small pothole, a collective, audible gasp echoed out around the bus.  There were a lot of shocked passengers.

“Sorry, folks!” the driver shouted.

Slouching back down into his seat, Peter turned and stared out of the window, down the road towards the next stop.  As the bus slowly pulled up, Peter could make out the faces of people he had seen many times before.  The old Indian lady with her basket of fresh fruit and veg, the two young boys who he felt for sure should be in school, the wearied mother and her two small children, and the ragged-looking middle-aged man carrying a laptop and tripod.  As the varied group of people took their turns finding a seat, the driver prepared to pull away.  But Peter’s gaze remained out of the window.

Five, four, three, two-, he counted down.

As his mind hit ‘one’, a man raced out of the building adjacent to the bus stop.  The man dived towards the bus and forced open the door. Panicked, the driver left his seat and attempted to stop the man.  As he lurched forward, the man reached inside his jacket, where, nestled inside his belt, was a small firearm.

“Back at the wheel!” he shouted.

The driver froze.  He was reaching his twilight years and this was too much for him to take in.  Peter knew that John, the driver, had only taken this job as he needed the money to pay his mortgage.  He had reached retirement age but couldn’t afford the house he lived in after his wife had passed away.  He needed the money and the bus followed a simple enough route, which is what he was after.  A nice, simple day’s work, is how he had once described it.  Not today.

Stumbling back into his driver’s seat, John lent forward and rested himself on his steering wheel, the large style that only vehicles of a certain size seem to use.

“Drive!” the man ordered John, forcing the butt of the gun into his temple.

The bus screeched away from the stop, at a speed most of its inhabitants had never felt from the vehicle before, John included.  But Peter had, and he knew what would happen if this kept up.

Keep it steady, John.

The old Indian women began to scream; gripping tightly to their mother, the two children opposite her quickly followed.  The man pulled the gun away from John’s head and approached the old women.  Pointing the gun at her chest, he spoke softly:

“Do that again, and I will pull this trigger. Do you understand?”

The woman nodded.  The only noise left filling the bus was that of the children, their sobs and cries.  The rest of the passengers were in a state of shock, all except Peter.  He watched on as the man sat next to the two children, whispering something to them.  Again, Peter could not make out what the man had said, but whatever it was, it worked.  The children soon stopped crying.  He rose from his seat and moved in front of Kate, blocking her from the man’s view.

“Steven, please, stop,” Peter called.

Steven shot up from his seat and stared Peter right in the eyes.  He was shocked to hear his name spoken so recognisably.  Instinctively, he again raised his gun, pointing it towards his perceived aggressor.

“What did you say?” he asked, clearly agitated.

“Listen, I know about what happened. Please, just relax,” Peter replied.

And he did know, too.  Steven had once told him all about it.  He had spoken of the argument he had with his girlfriend, of his pushing her away in anger, of the bag she had tripped on which sent her tumbling down the flight of stairs outside their apartment, and the fact he was already on probation.  Steven had told him all about it, in a much calmer state than the one he was currently in.  But that conversation seemed a world away now.

“Trouble? What the hell do you know about trouble? How the hell do you know my name!?” Steven shouted back.

Peter’s intervention had Steven more on edge than before, his temper slowly rising.

Shit, this isn’t going very well, he thought.

Kate began shifting nervously behind him.  He reached back with one hand, placing it reassuringly on her shoulder.  He raised his other hand, palm facing forward: a sign that he meant no harm.

“Please, don’t worry about that. Please trust me. I know you don’t want to do this. I know you’re running away from what happened. But it wasn’t your fault. I promise you, I know it wasn’t your fault. Please put the gun away,” Peter reasoned.

But it wasn’t working.  Steven strode back to the front end of the bus, where he could keep all of the passengers, especially Peter, in view.  His gun still raised, he now pointed it at various people, waving it haphazardly.

“You don’t know anything about me. Any of you! There’s no getting out of this now, I know–”

John leapt from his driver’s seat, grabbing Steven around the throat.  Peter watched on helplessly.  As the two men fell to the floor, the sound of a gunshot resonated through the vehicle.  Peter felt his hand behind him being squeezed tightly.  Screams once again filled the air; passengers dived to the floor, seeking cover under their seats, bags, anything they could find.

The bus veered off the road.  The small fence at the road’s edge offered no resistance as it gained speed.  Plunging down the hill on the other side, it began to tumble.  It flipped over.  And then again.  Its passengers were thrown around like rag dolls.  After three full rolls, the bus, now resting on its right hand side, led still.  Those still conscious were in a state of shock.  So much so, not a single of the dazed passengers noticed that Peter had been shot.

In the moments before their death, it is often said that people see their lives flash before their eyes.  All of the meaningful moments in their lives, the good things they have done, all relived before they pass on.

But this did not happen for Peter.  He knew better than that by now.

Glancing to his left, he saw the motionless body of Kate; eyes fixed forward, a trickle of blood seeped from her mouth.  He still remembered the first time this all happened, and the sadness he felt.  He remembered how she tried to fight Steven off and how he had shot her.  She was a fighter alright.  And so was he.  He’d find a way to save her.  Even if he had to do this for an eternity, he’d find a way.  It just wasn’t going to be this time.

Not again, he mourned, as he once more watched Kate’s eyes close for the final time.

Mustering all of the strength he had left, Peter pulled the amulet he had tied around his neck to his lips.  With his dying breath he spoke a short incantation.

A bright white light filled the sky, forcing him to close his eyes tightly.  The light was so intense that he still wasn’t used to it; he wasn’t sure he ever would be.  After a few seconds the light rescinded and Peter reopened his eyes.  He was back at the bus stop.  He pulled up his shirt sleeve and checked his watch: 11:01.  A new plan of action was already being formulated.

This time, he thought.  This time…