by Richard C Elder
a (very) Bloody Mary
Billy Williamson stands in the hallway of his home staring at the midnight street through one of the grubby panes in the front door. The wrought iron gate separating his garden from the world is closed. He frowns and reseats the NYC baseball hat, gets it sitting square across his broad skull. The privet hedge either side of the gateposts is a mess, growing wild as weeds. Trim it first thing in the morning, soon as the frost lifts. He turns and looks up the staircase; it’s barely visible in the gloom and muddy orange light percolating through the glass, but he could climb it with his eyes shut if he had to. Ten steps up, turn to the left, three steps more.
Barney stands on tread number ten, his eyes black and round as marbles, staring down at Billy. Light floods the landing when the bathroom door swings open. Barney snuffles and dips his head before turning away to climb the top treads. The light dies at the clack of a switch. Slippers scuff across carpet and the woman says, ‘Off the bed, you little shit.’
Billy sighs and gives the hedge a last look. Am I getting forgetful, or what? A rocket explodes above the roof of the house across the road, and he grins at the expanding ball of emerald green diamonds. Another streaks into the sky, orange sparks blasting from its tail; a crackling, blinding storm of blue-white magnesium stars arc through the air when it detonates.
He climbs the stairs, taking his time for there’s a dull throb in the middle of his chest.
Janice - his wife for the past forty-three years - is at the far side of their bedroom, her back to the door. She’s sitting on a thickly upholstered stool at her faux oak dresser. There’s a free-standing vanity mirror in front of her and a table lamp to one side. She dips her fingertip into a small pink glass tub, scoops out a knob of moisturiser and dabs it over her face. Leaning close to the mirror she spreads the cream over grained skin, her features glowing sickly yellow in the light from the low energy bulb.
Standing just outside the doorway, Billy murmurs, ‘You finished in the bathroom?’
She freezes mid-knead, her eyes swivelling in their sockets at the sound of the voice. The room is dead silent. Stretched out on the floor beside the radiator, Barney raises his head and looks at Billy. Janice turns, slow as treacle running off a cold spoon, the stool creaking like a worn hip beneath her. Tortoise shell varifocals crammed onto her face, she peers into the murk at the far side of the bed. She can see the shape of a man, a big square-shouldered man, standing motionless, his features no more than hints of a nose and mouth, grey blotches-on-black.
Leaping to the bed she pulls a large black-handled kitchen knife from under the pillow and holds it high above her head, the tip glowing like a distant star. Her voice is shrill with adrenalin and shock. ‘Stay where you are you bastard or I’ll stick you! You hear me? Don’t you bloody move!’ Snatching her phone from the bedside table she taps 999 and screams her address, that’s there’s a maniac in her bedroom, to get here NOW, RIGHT NOW!
She stands her ground, the bed, the blade and her gown the only things (she sleeps au-naturel) between her and the intruder. Glancing at Barney she decides when, if, she gets out of this she’ll tie the useless mutt into a sack, fill the bath and toss him in.
Billy steps into the room and touches the light switch. Janice retreats a half step, squinting in the glare, tightening her grip on the quivering knife. ‘Cops are on the way,’ she growls, her brow furrowed deeper than corduroy, blue eyes glittering. She jabs the knife in his direction, keeps the threat real.
‘It’s me. Jan, it’s me,’ says Billy as he takes off his baseball hat, rolling it into a tube then pocketing it. Nodding at the knife, he asks, ‘And when did we start doing that?’
Janice stands slack-jawed, speechless for once in her life. Barney gets to his feet and trots across the laminate flooring, his nails click-click-clicking as he makes his way to the landing to stand beside Billy. The pair of them look at her, waiting for something, anything, she might care to offer as an explanation for the mad-ass behaviour they’ve both witnessed.
She lowers the knife to belly level, keeps the blade pointing at him.
‘You’re dead. A year dead, you boring, limp-dicked old bastard,’ she hisses, her face twisted into a sneer. ‘You’re dead and bloody buried, and you’re going to stay that way.’
She runs across the bed, the mattress rebounding below her naked feet, dark-green quilt rucking and twisting like wind-lashed ocean. The ceiling light is a cable car in a hurricane, hurling shadows from one side of the room to the other. Billy’s legs turn to lead as he tries to get out of her way, but she’s coming at him like a cheetah, teeth bared and moving so fast she’s almost a blur. The blade skewers him and Billy gasps like his heart has stopped, then gasps again, incredulous; there’s no pain, no impact driving him back to the bannister, no struggle with a madwoman. The knife and Janice pass through him like he’s nothing more substantial than steam.
A brief cry followed by heavy thuds has him spinning round, peering over the handrail. She’s lying at the bottom of the stairs, face down on the gold and red hall carpet. Her breadstick left forearm is snapped in two, the right trapped under her. Barney whimpers and looks at Billy; both of them race to the hall.
‘She’s alive, Barney,’ says Billy, kneeling beside his wife.
Her eyes flicker then open, her breathing deepening as she moves her head from side to side and wiggles her toes.
The pain in his chest is back, sharper than before. He rubs the front of his coat, yelps as his knuckles sizzle. There’s a palm print staining the grey denim. No, not a stain: it’s luminous and glowing with heat. It’s a small palm, thumb pointed upward to his throat, fingers splayed and covering his heart. The middle finger is unusually short.
Janice moans and rolls over, panting like a dog. A couple of deep breaths then she sits up and gets her feet under herself. Pushing her heels into the carpet, she slides up the wall. A protruding shard of bone drags across the wallpaper, pulls grunts from deep in her throat. Blood paints her forehead, nose and cheeks from a gash in her scalp. The knife’s still in her white-knuckled fist, her skinny forearm a minestrone of raised blue veins and tensed muscle. She slashes at his throat but all she cuts is air. She stabs at his stomach and almost overbalances when the blade and her fist meet no resistance. As blood sheets down her face an eerie blue light fills the hallway.
Billy jerks a thumb over his shoulder, says, ‘You pushed me down the stairs. You murdered me.’ He fills with pain. Pain and sadness. Sadness and regret. Whatever he is.
She laughs in his face; bloody saliva flies from thin lips drawn back to expose tiny sharp teeth. Leaning forward till they’re almost nose to nose she whispers, ‘Go haunt a bloody graveyard,’ then clamps the blade between her canines. Scrabbling fingers find the night latch. She unlocks the door and pulls it open an inch. The blade zings as she trails it from her mouth, gets it settled in her hand. ‘Piss off out of my house, freak.’
Billy’s face contorts, the lips thickening, teeth elongating, his pupils expanding to black saucers set in green orbs. Sulphurous breath streams from his nostrils, swirling round her face, burning her skin. Hell looks her in the eyes.
Police constable Laura Engles has her gloved hand on the rusting wrought iron gate. Her colleague - constable Evelyn Simmons - is a few steps behind, talking on her radio, confirming their arrival at the address where an intruder has been reported. The cobalt strobes on the roof of their car hurl sheet lightning across the faces of the houses lining the street.
The blast from a firework rattles windows, and Simmons curses under her breath. The job’s hard enough without pseudo-gunfire.
Engles looks back and mouths, Okay? Simmons gives her a thumbs-up. Engles pushes open the gate just as the front door is wrenched open, crashing against the wall and smashing several panes of glass. A woman bursts from the house, her face a glistening scarlet mask. She’s running at the policewoman, the knife flashing ominously in the strobe, yelling, ‘YOU’REDEADYOU’REFRIGGIN’DEAD!’
Fast as a gunslinger, Engles draws her Glock pistol and snaps off a shot which drills into Janice’s throat, smashing through two cervical vertebrae. A cloud of bone chips, fat and gore follow the bullet which zips through Billy’s face before punching a hole in the kitchen door. Janice nosedives onto the concrete path, bounces and rolls to the side, ends up lying on her back on the lawn. The knife slips from her fingers into silvered grass; three strangled breaths and her chest sinks, never to rise again. As her vision fades to black she sees Billy drift past, his gaze fixed on something beyond the confines of the garden. Then Barney appears, his dachshund face seeming to smile before he too walks away.
On the southern shore of Belfast Lough lies Ballyholme beach. It’s a sandy sheltered crescent almost a mile wide. At its western end stands Ballyholme yacht club. The dinghies in the yard are protected from the frosts and rain under bright-blue plastic tarpaulins, their halyards tap-tap-taping against bare masts in the freshening northerly breeze. To the east lies a low peninsula of fractured black rock topped with whin bushes and coarse, salt-scalded grass.
Billy stands at the midpoint of the bay, just out of reach of the wavelets sliding over the hard-packed sand. A sprinkle of tiny lights are shimmering on the lough’s distant north shore, at the far end of the broad silver path laid on the sea by the full moon. It’s Whitehead, a seaside town he visited every summer as a child with his parents.
A solitary cloud rises like smoke from the horizon, climbing toward the moon. His heart lurching, Billy gapes at the sky, blue-black and endless, the moonlight obliterating all but the brightest stars. He finds the cloud again. Its shadow falls on the brilliant pathway, a distant smudge tarnishing the silver. As the cloud climbs higher the shadow accelerates toward the beach. Billy looks down, sees Barney at his side.
‘That’s it, boy. Time for me t...’
The shadow sweeps over them and the beach is plunged into darkness. The cloud soars and the light returns. Barney whimpers, turning in circles, leaving scratches in the sand. He lowers his head and searches for scent but finds nothing. The wind strengthens, bringing with it colder air. He can’t stay any longer.
A final look, just to be sure, then he lollops away, headed for home.