Noah was running late. He was driving as fast as he could without breaking the speed limit. He was pretty sure that the traffic light had been turning orange. Only pretty sure, admittedly, but he was running late. Juliet had reminded him, had asked him if he’d remembered to pick Alex up from the party. He hadn’t wanted to leave her but she’d insisted. Anyway, the doctor had said that she needed to rest. It was at times like this that he felt that she judged him. Or, if she didn’t, maybe she should. He couldn’t help it that he still cared about her more than he cared about her son. He hoped that in time he would learn to love Alex like he was his own. But he had to admit to himself that it hadn’t happened yet.
He made a left turn and was struck by the number of trees that lined the road. This was a nice area; he’d never had a reason to come here before. It was the birthday of one of Alex’ classmates. Noah had forgotten his name. Not that it mattered. The surname was Williams and Noah would go in, grab Alex, and take him home. He slowed down as he counted the numbers on the houses. 12. 14. 16. He turned onto the driveway and parked. He would go inside, say thank you to the Williams, and make a swift exit. He had no idea what he was supposed to do with Alex. Or, for that matter, what he was supposed to tell him. He’d never been left alone with him for any extended period of time. This was all new, and it didn’t sit well on his shoulders. What would he make for dinner?
He rang the doorbell. From where he was standing he could hear the sounds of kids having fun. It must be coming from the garden. He had been sitting in the car with the air-conditioning on and had almost forgotten how humid it was today. The more he thought about it the quicker beads of sweat started to form on his brow. He heard a loud splash. Jesus, did they have a swimming pool?
The door was opened by a skinny red-headed woman wearing a loose fitting white dress. She looked as though the heat hadn’t affected her at all, which didn’t surprise Noah as a wall of cool air hit him.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Sorry, yes, I’m Noah. I’m here to pick up Alex”
She smiled and beckoned him inside. He wiped his shoes on the doormat, conscious of the white carpet that stretched out towards the kitchen that was visible at the end of the hallway.
“You’re early,” she told him. He wasn’t, but he apologised regardless. “Oh, it’s no bother. Come on, would you like a beer? Or some juice, if you’re driving?”
He thought seriously about accepting a beer before deciding to be sensible.
“Juice would be great, Mrs Williams, thank you,” he said. She grinned.
“Oh for heaven’s sake, Noah, you’re not one of the children. Please, call me Vivian.” He smiled at as she bared her white teeth, glaringly white against the dark red of her lipstick. She beckoned again with her dextrous hands, and he followed her through to the kitchen. Everything was so clean, it was difficult to imagine that one child had been here, let alone an entire party. From the kitchen window he could see children milling around, chasing each other. At first glance he couldn’t see Alex.
“So, you’re Juliet’s new boyfriend?” she asked. The word ‘new’ riled him but he did his best not to show it.
“That’s right,” he said. “Two months, now.”
“That’s just great,” Vivian cooed. “We all love Juliet so very much. She’s such a wonderful woman, I’m sure you agree.”
He did, and nodded to show that he did. She handed him a small, clear plastic cup filled with something that looked sticky. He took a sip and put it back down. The juice tasted like apple-flavoured sweets. A grey-haired man who was verging on pudgy, wearing a jumper that was slightly too tight, came in from the garden, putting an empty beer bottle down onto the side with a clink. He smiled at Vivian, which pushed his red cheeks back and up, then held his hand out.
“I heard you come in,” he said, like he was letting Noah in on a secret. Noah wondered whether that was a loaded statement before the man smiled and said, “My name’s Frank. I’m Vivian’s husband.”
Noah extended his forced smile and shook Frank’s hand.
“She giving you the Spanish Inquisition?” asked Frank with a grin, and Vivian playfully swatted him with a dishcloth.
“No, not at all,” said Noah, aware that he was ruining the joke. But he didn’t want to be here, didn’t actually care at all, he wanted to grab Alex and get out. He looked past Vivian’s hair and out of the kitchen window. He thought he could see Alex in the distance; he saw him running behind some bushes.
“We were very keen to meet you,” said Vivian. Frank moved closer to her, putting one hand around her waist, pulling her towards him. Noah had not heard of these two before being instructed to go and retrieve his girlfriend’s son. And he thought it was high time he did what he had come to do.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “I don’t want to be rude, but I’m in a bit of a rush. Is Alex in the garden?”
He thought he saw the briefest glimmer of displeasure cross Vivian’s face, but it was gone just as quickly. “Of course he is,” she said. “Where else would he be?”
Noah moved past Frank, muttering apologies, or perhaps they weren’t even that, and went out of the back door into the garden. There was indeed a swimming pool, small but there nevertheless. He scanned the small groups of screeching children, each of their voices cutting through his head like a scalpel. He hadn’t even felt this headache coming on. Alex wasn’t in any of these bunches. Noah looked towards the bushes at the end of the garden. He saw a small girl’s face peer out and an unmistakable look of guilt cross her face as they made eye contact. The girl disappeared back into the undergrowth and Noah walked quickly over towards her.
As he grew closer he heard several distinct laughs. He recognised one of them as belonging to Juliet’s son. He’d heard it when Alex had been excused from the dinner table to watch TV. He pushed his way past some branches and found himself in a small clearing. Four boys and two girls were standing in a circle.
“Alex?” he asked.
The children all turned to face him, and he felt the strangest instinct to take a step back. Then he saw what they standing around.
The crow was dying, but was clearly not quite dead. Its beak was slowly opening and closing. The wing moved up and down torturously, you couldn’t call it flapping. A trainer he recognised pushed down on the animal, producing a desperate noise. He heard that laugh again. He looked up at saw Juliet’s son. Alex was looking at him, challenging him. He pushed his foot down again and that same awful noise pierced the air.
“Alex. Come here,” said Noah.
“Why?” asked Alex.
“Come here, right now,” Noah said, putting as much authority in his voice as he could. Alex did not move. Noah reached over and grabbed the boy by the arm. Alex cried out in outrage, looked Noah in the eye, and stamped down hard. There was a crunch and the man and the boy both looked down at the red and black mess under Alex’s shoe.
Noah didn’t think about what he did next. He slapped Alex, hard. He had no control over himself. He didn’t compensate for the boy’s size. Alex toppled backwards and landed next to the dead animal.
Noah turned to see Vivian and Frank standing, both red-faced and shocked, staring at him. Alex started wailing. He stood and ran to Vivian's side, who hugged the boy close to her and made comforting noises. The other children scattered.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” asked Frank.
Noah ran. He pushed past the two adults, ignoring both of their cries of displeasure. He ran through the groups of children, who had stopped playing and turned to see what all the fuss was about. He ran back into the house, through the kitchen and the hallway, and out of the front door. He ran all the way to his car.
As he drove away he checked the rear view mirror to see if anybody had followed him to the front door. Nobody had. He was alone as he drove, too fast, away from the house.
So here is, later than planned, my new short story. Not much to say about it, really. I suppose you can make of it what you will. I was determined that it wouldn't take any sort of supernatural turn, and I'm pleased that it didn't.
But it's still fairly unpleasant, which is a challenge I will take for my next story. I'm not saying that I will write a pleasant story. Because I can't guarantee that. What I will do is write a story that's not UNpleasant. So let's see what I can do with that. It may take a little longer, but I'm working on another writing about writing post. Promise.
Otherwise, I've got some ideas for The Novel that I'm going to try and put onto paper over the next few days. They might not all be winners, but the more I think about the characters, the more I want to write them. That's a good sign.
I'm still reading The Blue Book by A.L. Kennedy. She's a very clever writer and it's written in a very distinct, deliberate style that I found took me a little while to get into but it's very good.
Having ranted about how much I like Jack Ketchum, I went to see The Woman at FrightFest, which he co-wrote with the director Lucky McKee. I was...impressed. It's the kind of film that produces a visceral reaction, and that's always something I'm interested in. I'm still thinking about it several days later. I would say that it's not for everyone. God, no. There will be a review up soon at www.fohnhouse.blogspot.com which, as you probably know, is where you can find my film ramblings.
Hope you liked the story.