by Matt Holland
Two husbands need to die before midnight or this will never work and I’ll never be free.
“You should leave now, no one wants you here.” Jenny said. She’s grown up to look so much like me that it scares me a little.
And she’s right. Nobody wanted me here. Not even me. But it needs to be done. Tonight.
“Sorry,” I said to her. I wish I could’ve thought of more. They deserve more. These poor children. Instead, all I can do is apologise.
“Please go,” David, my youngest, looked a lot like me too. A me that is still too young to understand what’s happening or why. He never lost that look of innocent fear. He stood there with his hand in his pocket. His right hand.
The one I burned.
“I’ve been a bad mother,” I said. I don’t want forgiveness. I don’t deserve any. I just want them to know that I agree with them, that I’m on their side.
“No shit,” Jenny said. She heaved up off her chair and waddled at me, her huge pregnant belly thrust out at me like she’s using my unborn grandchild as a human shield. My first grandchild. It should make happy but I don’t even know if its a boy or a girl, or if Jenny has picked any names yet. I didn’t even know she was pregnant until I got to the hospice.
Jenny never involved me in the pregnancy. I can’t say that I blame her.
Jenny pushed her nose against mine, her belly–and my grandchild–shove me back against the wall. I have to lean on my cane to stay upright.
“Get out,” Jenny said. She was so close that I could see the tears welling up in her eyes.
I wished more than anything else that I could just comfort my daughter once. Just one time I wished I could act like a mother to her.
But that isn’t our relationship and never has been. It’d be cruel to start being a mother today of all days.
“Don’t pretend like you give a shit, Violet. Okay? Go fuck off back to Madagascar or fucking Timbuktu or where the fuck ever. Just don’t…” Jenny groaned and stumbled back. Quick as a whip, David rushed over to help his sister back to a seat.
In his haste, he showed me his hand. The withered skin stretched tight across his bones. More than anything else that reminds me of who I am and what I was there at the hospice to do.
I owed them this.
“Just FUCK OFF!” Jenny screamed. She fell into her brothers arms, sobbing into his shoulder. The anger had gone and deflated her, left her depleted like an old battery.
I knew that feeling all too well.
I couldn’t stand here and watch this. Best to come back in the evening instead, when it’d be quieter.
I turned and hobbled away without another word. I couldn’t make things better with words. Not today, not this late.
“Mum,” David said.
He had more to say and I almost turn back to listen to it.
I might have a bad back. I might need a hearing aid, and my knees ache–constantly. But I still have my tricks. My ways of getting around people.
I don’t want to flatter myself. Sneaking onto an NHS cancer hospice isn’t as tough as you might think. It’s nothing compared to breaking into foreign embassies, or military bases, or ancient ruins, or old libraries buried deep under the ground.
My first husband lay on a bed plugged into dozens of beeping and booping machines. The sharp smell of antiseptic in his room not quite masking the stink of vomit. I hobbled over and fell into a chair by his bed.
I could do it while he was sleeping, spare him the pain he must’ve been in, and spare me the shame of facing him after thirty years.
Plus, Arthur had been withered down by the disease. He was snarling and grimacing as if each breath was a battle. He used to look exactly the same when he went to bed with the flu, only this time I knew he wasn’t faking it for attention. He was in real pain. Much more than I was.
Thirty years on and I still hated the thought of my Arthur in any sort of pain.
My hands stopped shaking and the pain in my back quietened down enough for me to lean forward. I could feel the heat baking out of Arthur’s bed. Feverish heat that took me back to those days in the outback, back when we had our whole lives in front of us. Before I’d met my second husband.
Arthur’s eyelids peeled open. Underneath the sleep crust were the two chocolate brown eyes that I’d fallen in love with. He might’ve been carrying thirty extra years in his face, but those eyes hadn’t aged a day.
He smiled. “Hello, duck.”
Sixty eight years old and his voice still makes me blush. My throat dried up and I couldn’t speak. Seeing him again was like seeing him for the first time, back when I was a meek little runaway too afraid to talk to anyone.
He tried to sit up and groans, his face creased up with pain. I stand up and help him without thinking. I know full well that my back will want payment for that sudden movement, with interest. But I tried hard not to think about that now.
When I left, Arthur had been nineteen stone. Now the disease had taken so much from him that even with my back I can lift him with no trouble.
I helped Arthur up and fluff up some pillows for him to lean against before easing him back down. He nodded his thanks and beamed at me with a mouthful of yellow teeth. That frightens me more than anything. Arthur shouldn’t be this happy to see me. He might’ve called me ‘duck’ like he used to, but I’m not even sure he remembered who I am. The mind can play tricks on you at our age…
“What’re you doing here, love?” he asked. And I know I’m not going to get lucky. I’m going to have to talk to him and explain what I’m doing here and… “Is it time?”
“Yes, love,” I said. “Are you ready?”
“I didn’t think I’d ever see you again,” Arthur said. “Where did you go?”
“Back to Australia first.”
Arthur chuckles at that, but his laughter fast turns to a bone rattling cough that rakes the bottom of his lungs.
There’s a pitcher of water on the bedside table. I go to pour him a glass but he waves his hand ‘no.’
“I’m good, love,” Arthur said. “The bloody outback. You didn’t get any spider bites, did you?”
“Don’t joke about that,” I said.
“I don’t blame you for it you know. It was my own fault for not checking my boots before I put them on, like the guide said. Christ, it was probably my damn fault for wanting to go to the outback in the first place. We should’ve just gone up Skegness like you wanted.”
It wouldn’t have made a difference. I realised that years ago. If it wasn’t a spider bite in the Australian outback, it would’ve been a fall in Skegness, a shark bite in the Costa-Del-Sol, a hit and run in New York City. No matter where we went, Arthur was scheduled to die and there was nothing anyone could’ve done about that.
It was my fault for running away from the compound all those years ago. I had brought this evil on him.
I’d never have time to explain all that to Arthur, not that he’d have understood it anyway. He’d always had trouble understanding that world. They all did, really.
“Sorry, love. You were telling me where you’d gone,” Arthur said.
“There was nothing in Australia so I went back to the Compound,” I said. I swallowed hard. It was like swallowing a pebble. Arthur might not have wanted the water but I certainly did. Water, a paracetemol, and forty years of my life back. “They didn’t want to see me again so I went looking for another teacher. I went to Morroco, Romania, Hungary, most of Europe following rumours and picking up odds and sods along the way. I didn’t find what I was looking for until I got back to London, funnily enough. Then I…”
Footsteps squeaked outside the door. I stopped. Held my breath. I put my hand in my purse and felt the silver knife in there. I wasn’t sure another death would help, but I wasn’t about to get caught. Getting caught right now would ruin it all.
Nobody came in. The footsteps retreated off and the hall fell silent. I was safe, at least for now. But there was a good reminder that I didn’t have time to dawdle, as much as I might’ve wanted to.
“Will it hurt?” Arthur asked. He must’ve known that time was short as well. He may not have known much about my world, but he was no fool.
“I’ve got some tablets with me,” I said. “They’ll take care of the worst of it.”
He blinked the mosture out of his eyes. “Christ, I wish we had more time.”
I laughed. “Show me one person our age who doesn’t.”
Arthur smiled. “I missed you, duck,” he said. “I never remarried, you know? Didn’t see the point.”
“You should’ve,” I said. “The children needed a mother.”
“Probably,” he grinned with all of his teeth again. “They turned out okay though. Bloody good kids.”
“They turned out okay, in spite of everything,” I said.
He took my hand and squeezed. He wasn’t as strong as he had been, he could barely even fit his fingers around my hand, but it felt good.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
It was easiest just to let him believe that. We didn’t have time to argue the details.
“I’m ready,” Arthur said. “I love you, duck.”
I tried not to smile as I handed him the pill bottle. This wasn’t the time to smile or remember the good times.
“How many should I take?” he asked.
“It doesn’t make a difference,” I said. “As many as you need.”
I kissed him on the side of the mouth and let him upend the pill bottle down his throat.
Clarissa had told me that it’d take about fifteen minutes before his system started to fail. But he wouldn’t feel any pain so long as he was under. I waited until those sweet brown eyes closed, waited until I could hear him snoring, then I rammed the silver dagger into his chest and cut into him.
I hoped Clarissa was right about the pain. I didn’t want Arthur to feel this part.
Getting out of the hospice was easier than I thought. I’d done a good job keeping the nurses busy on the other end of the facility so there was no one there to challenge me, even with Arthur’s machines beeping out panic alarms from his room.
Once I was out of the cancer ward it was easy enough to get out through security. Nobody really suspects a frail old woman with a walking stick, not even if her hands are covered in blood.
I just kept moving and didn’t look back. Didn’t think about the man I’d left in the room behind me. I didn’t want to even remember that he was my ducky, my Arthur. I had an important job to do and midnight was creeping closer.
My back howled at me to stop and rest, but I kept forcing myself down the road. My own doctors would probably tell me off for doing that, but I wouldn’t be seeing them again. Not if I did this right.
I caught a taxi back to my house and tipped the driver with everything left in my purse for getting me home so fast. From this point on, money wouldn’t matter.
The living room armchair looked so inviting. I just wanted to drop down on it and wait for my back to stop screaming. But I knew that if I sat down that’d be it, I wouldn’t get up until morning and by morning it’d be too late.
I reminded myself that this was what I’d been working for almost all of my adult life. I had to keep going. Just a little further.
I was grateful that I lived in a bungalow, with everything all on one floor. I’d never be able to climb stairs in this state. I clicked and clattered my way to the indoor toilet and switched on the light.
The mirror was right ahead. Just over the sink. Not ideal, but it was the only mirror in the house that I could reach properly. It’d have to do.
I tipped my purse into the empty sink, the silver knife clangined against the porcelain with a din that echoed through the house. I fished through the pill bottles, sweet wrappers, and loose change and arranged everything I needed on the rim of the sink.
One lump of chalk.
One phial of salt.
Arthur’s still beating heart.
Clarissa had assured me that the pills Arthur had taken would keep his heart beating for hours after I took it out of his chest. I told myself that it was marvelous the sort of pills you got these days. But I knew there was more to the pills than just a few chemicals.
I just had to keep lying to myself a few minutes longer. If I stopped to think about any of this I doubt my mind would come back in one piece. I’d had enough of my mind being taken from me over the years, thank you very much.
I lit the candles and used the chalk to sketch the symbols Clarissa had shown me onto the mirror. I thought this’d be hard, what with my arthritis, but my hands barely shook at all. It was as if the chalk itself was leading me.
Next I dabbed the symbols in the salt from the phial to seal them.
Once everything was secure I closed my eyes and called out to my second husband.
He was there when I opened my eyes again. Standing in front of me, inside the mirror.
I’d seen him enough times over the years to get used to him, but I still almost gagged at his appearance. When I was a girl, Brother Stewart and Brother Andrew used to take me fishing up by the canal. They kept their bait in an old sweet tin and it was my job to make sure none of the maggots wriggled away. I still remember my disgust at those tiny, squirming creatures pulsating inside that old sweet tin.
That’s what my second husband looked like. He had a face like a tinful of writhing maggots.
He opened what might’ve been a mouth and said, in a voice as sweet as a rotten egg, “Violet, my love. How long has it been?”
“How the time flies. Well, maybe it has for you. You’re not looking so well, Violet.”
That was almost funny. I very nearly told husband number two to go look in a mirror if he wanted to see something that didn’t look well. I might’ve gone a little long in the tooth, but husband two looked like a bucket full of fish bait. I had to catch myself to keep from laughing for the same reason I didn’t want to sit in my armchair, or think too long about what I’d done to Arthur.
Because once I started, I’d never stop.
“Does your back still ache? Do your hands still feel like they’re being chewed apart by fire ants? And those ears…ten years ago it was like trying to hear underwater, I don’t even want to imagine what it must be like for you now.” The maggoty skin wriggled about on the lower part of his face. His best impression of a smile.
“Is that why you’ve called to me? I can take all the pain away, Violet. You know I can. Haven’t I done it once before? Just say the word. The aches, the pains, those ghastly wrinkles–all of it. I can fix it all.”
He could and we both knew it. He’d done it for Arthur back in Australia. My second husband had cleaned out the spider venom and closed wound in Arthur’s foot, he’d even soothed the sunburn on Arthur’s neck. I had no doubt that he could cure my back ache and my arthritis. Clarissa had even said that he, and the creatures like him, could make people young all over again.
But there was a price for their help. He had saved Arthur’s life out there in the Australian outback, but he had taken part of me in return. Hollowed out a little space for him to slither into when he got bored and wanted to walk around with a human’s skin. A marriage far more intimate than the one I’d shared with Arthur for those few, brief months.
I remembered those oily tendrils wriggling inside my mind, like an itch in a place you can’t scratch for hours. I remembered the things he’d made me do, to Arthur, to my children, to poor David’s hand.
But even still, I wanted what he was offering me. Who wouldn’t be tempted for a second chance at life? Even though I knew the price, I was tempted.
“I’m banishing you,” I said to my second husband. “You’re not welcome around me anymore.”
My second husband made a sound like bubbles bursting in a muddy swamp. He was laughing.
“I don’t want you anymore anyway, you withered old hag. I have other humans to play with. Humans who can still walk without a stick. Humans that are actually fun. And you can’t banish me anyway, not without–,”
“Your true name,” I said. “But I spoke to Clarissa Lendvai.”
My second husband’s flesh stopped wriggling. “Lendvai? The witch?”
“I think she prefers to be called a practitioner,” I said. “Not that it matters–Aanaoruhmnog.”
The creature recoiled like it’d just been slapped. I felt like I’d been carrying a huge weight for years but now someone had come along to lighten the load. The relief made my back a little straighter.
“Let’s talk this out,” said the creature, I was no longer thinking of him as my second husband. He was Aanaoruhmnog, an opportunistic monster that’d taken advantage of my poor Arthur to steal forty years of my life, to punish me for leaving a deranged cult when I was still too young to understand. “I can give you it all back. Make you young again. And I can give you a hundred years. Fresh, new years. You won’t age a day for any of them. And then I’ll go. I’ll leave you alone. You’ll never hear from me again.”
I closed my eyes and shut myself off from his rambling. He offered me a thousand more years. He offered to cure David’s hand. He said that none of my descendants would ever grow old or get sick. He promised to make me immortal.
I tuned him out as best I could. Clarissa had said that he’d bargain and plead for his life. When the bargains didn’t work I heard him slamming against the mirror, rattling the house around me so hard I nearly fell. But the chalk and salt formed a protective seal that he couldn’t pass.
“Aanaoruhmnog,” I said. I reached out, found the wet meat of Arthur’s heart and held it in front of me. “I reject your gifts and command you to die, and never cross the Between to this realm for the rest of time. Ewch Allan, Aanaoruhmnog; you are banished!”
On the last syllable, I plunged the dagger into Arthur’s heart.
I expected a sound. A scream. A curse. Something. Instead there was just the dull click of the boiler as it went through its usual nightly rumblings.
When I opened my eyes there was an old woman staring at me through my mirror. A mirror that now had a crack in it.
It was over.
I put out the candles and hobbled down the corridor. My back was raging worse than ever and my knees were crackling with every step. I had to stop part way to catch my breath, like I was walking uphill. It was getting harder to breathe and my left arm was tingling.
I found my armchair and I don’t think anything had ever looked so inviting. This time there was nothing stopping me from sitting in it.
My affairs were in order. I’d already taken care of the will. Half of everything, such as it was, would be divided between my two children. I hope it did a little to make up for what I’d done to them. The rest, including all the research I’d done over the years, would go to Clarissa Lendvai and my body would be donated to her department at Armitage University. I just thought of it as being an organ donor, I hope she’d find a better use for it than I would.
I closed my eyes. I dreamt of Arthur, and his sweet brown eyes, as the sirens howled outside my window.
–Matt Holland 13/05/17
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