2013 NZ Writers' College Short Story Competition Fifth Place

'The Empty Nest' - Andy Evans

 
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She watched the red digits floating in the darkness—... 02:43 ... 02:45 ... 02:56 ...— and thought about how her life was about to change.
          Pale moonlight filtered through the grommet top curtains, spilling into her bedroom, washing over her soft, thick duvet, expelling the heavier shadows. Outside, dry autumn leaves swirled and scraped across the road. The wind blew around the eaves of her house, its structure designed to flex, to creak and moan as its roof rose and settled once more.
          Beneath the bed covers, she was already dressed.
          Where was he?
          On the left-hand wall next to her bed, a couple of posters: Robert Pattinson as Edward Cullen and Johnny Depp as Barnabas Collins. Their faces plunged into darkness and yet their outlines comfortably familiar. She liked vampires especially. They were cute and oh so sexy.
          She was leaving this little sanctuary of twelve years… and for what?
          For love.
          For him.
          Not Patterson or Depp. She knew that such men were unattainable, that even if she occupied the same location in the world, if she could find some way to stand out amongst their multitude of fans, such stars would never look at her more than once: Dumpy, awkward Dinie. Why can’t you be more glamorous like other girls?
          It didn’t matter. Her mum’s cruelty didn’t matter. He loved her. He had picked her out from all the girls in the Nuneaton area. That, in and of itself, was no small miracle. He wanted to take care of her. He loved her. He had said it, on more than one occasion.

His name was Bern. That was all. She didn’t know his surname. He liked to be mysterious. She liked that too.         
          Nor did it matter that he was older than her. Age was just a number, anyway. In a few years no one would even blink an eyelid. It simply wouldn’t matter. But now, because she was a child, at least technically speaking, everyone over-reacted. She knew, however, that their love would last… and prove all their dissenters wrong.         
          Like her parents.
          Her dad and mum wouldn’t miss her when she was gone, she decided. She was a big disappointment. Her mum might cry, she supposed. Mums cry; it’s their hormones. “Sweetheart, I carried you in my womb for nine months,” she’d said on several occasions, as if that proved her love beyond all doubt. And while to birth a child must be a very special thing, she supposed, even that bond could fray if abandoned for long enough.
          She wanted to have children of her own one day. She’d discussed this with Bern and he said he was keen too. That had impressed her. That was one benefit of an older guy, more maturity. She thought he’d make a good father too... one day. And if they did have children she’d shower them with so much love and affection, let them know—on an annoyingly regular basis—that they are precious and wonderful and that, unlike her parents, she would never, ever stop loving them!
          She heard the car pull up outside and tip-toed to the window, pulling back the curtains to lookout. There, black and sleek, screaming attitude with its tinted glass, was Bern’s Jaguar XJ purring next to the curb-side.
          On her bedside table, her phone vibrated. The message read: FLY WITH ME.         
          It was Bern.

She felt the excitement rising in her chest and had to remind herself to breathe. He was here. He had come for her. This was really it.
          She strode silently across her bedroom. Grabbing the door handle, squeezing… she suddenly stopped and looked back.
          Everything she knew, her childhood years, were somehow enshrined in this room. The emotion gripped her. What things would she miss? How could she know? Surely anything could be replaced; more importantly, what good were things when they came in an environment so devoid of love or warmth? She could not bare to stay a moment longer.
          Heart trembling, she twisted the handle and opened the door in a slow arc, staring out at the dark landing. For a moment, it overwhelmed her, like some fiend about to swallow her whole.
          Her eyes took a moment to adjust. Vague shapes emerged downstairs: the sofa, the coffee table, the cabinet… all in their correct, their familiar places. On either side of her, descending into blackness, the twin staircases that, as a younger girl, she used to enjoying running around and around and around until her mum would scream in frustration. The light from the skylight found no purchase in that darkness.
          She edged forward... then paused.
          There was a smell, no, a couple of smells! The first was like cigarettes, only not exactly cigarettes or not the legal variety anyway. That was odd. Her parents didn’t smoke. Nor did she. When she’d taken a puff on one once it had made her want to vomit. Pretty gross! The second smell hid beneath the first: A trace of perfume, cheap, musky, definitely not something her mum would buy.
          Unnerved, she took another slow step towards the left staircase.
          The floorboard screeched, a loud creak that seemed to split the timber beneath her foot and bounced off all four walls.
          She froze.
          That was it. Game over. Her parents would wake and all her dreams of escape would end abruptly.
From across the landing she heard the slow, occasionally irregular snores of her dad coming from the other bedroom. No lights. No signs of her parents stirring from their slumber.
          She had been lucky.
          Carefully lifting her foot from the offending floorboard, shifting her weight to the other foot, she glided it forward over the cool, polished panels, feeling the drag against her bare skin. Cold floors in the wintertime... oddly, that was something she might miss.
          At the top of the staircase, clenching the railing, she studied the floor below with its many deep shadows. Nothing stirred. She continued her way downstairs, passing the large framed paintings which hung there, works her mum had created years before at Art School. In the glass exterior, she caught her reflection, albeit darkly, and shuddered. Who was this girl? Where was she going in such a hurry and at such an hour? And over her shoulder, on the opposite staircase, hadn’t she sensed someone moving in the blackness?
          She spun around, heart racing, the breath catching in her throat.
          There was only darkness, nothing more. If someone else was there, looking out at her even as she looked out at them, they were far stealthier than she.
          She exhaled. Her face twitching, her body trembling.
          Was there an intruder in the house? What was the chance of that happening on the very night she had planned her escape?
          Then a terrible thought rose in her mind, what if the intruder was Bern? What if he had entered her house to… what? Come and get her? What if the man she loved had some dark, ulterior motive? He had promised to awaken her womanhood, and she welcomed this, so why would he seek to harm her?
          “Bern?” she said in the stillness. “Is that you?” It was less than a whisper, barely audible at all, and yet she cursed herself for getting spooked and being so stupid. Did she want to get caught?
          No reply came from the other stairs.
          She continued down. As she did, she fancied she heard the faintest of echoes: as her footfalls came to a stop, didn’t their echo continue if only for a split second?
          No—she was imagining things!
          When she finally got to the bottom of the stairs, she carefully stepped over the infrared beam. Her dad had installed the security alarm at the foot of each staircase. If triggered, an alarm would wake up not only the whole house, but the entire street.
          An intruder wouldn’t know this, unless...
          Was it possible she had told Bern? They had talked about so many things, it was hard to know.
          Feeling slightly giddy from fear and excitement, she skipped through the lounge, her feet tickled by the rope rug, weaving between the coffee table and the 42 inch LCD television. She barely noticed her reflection as she passed the TV: her head distorted by the screen, hideously deformed, twisted like some demon. She found her boots and exited through the front door, pulling the door to with a definitive click.

Bern’s Jaguar idled under a streetlight outside her house.  She ran out across the driveway.  The night was cold; the wind, colder, tearing chunks from her under-dressed flesh. The Jaguar’s back door swung open. Strange. She had expected to ride up front with Bern. She peered through the passenger window, but only saw her own mystified reflection in the one-way glass. Reluctantly,  she moved to the car’s rear. As she slid into the dark interior, she liked the feeling as her jeans slid over the leather.
          The leather, like the car, was new and came with that new car smell, slightly diminished by the smell of tobacco smoke. The same smell she had smelt in the house, with something else beneath it. Something illicit. Something her parents would never approve of.
          She closed the door.
          Immediately, she heard the clunk as the central locking was activated. A stab of fear thrust through her. She felt suddenly alone and vulnerable. Looking out that weird glass, she thought how her house appeared both smaller and further away than it should. It made her feel incredibly sad too.
          From the driver’s seat came a slow, gentle laugh; much like the chortle of mischievous children, only deeper, heavier.
          “Bern? Why are you laughing?”
          “Stupid girl,” said Bern, but did not turn his head.
          Her fingernails scratched the wood panelling as they searched the darkness for the door handle. She yanked... but the child lock held. She knew then she was in trouble. This was the biggest mistake of her life. “Open this door! Immediately!”
          “No.”
          “I’ll scream,” she threatened.
          “I’ll rip your tongue out if you do,” he said.
          He turned around. The lines and shadows of his face uncompromising in the blue ambience and his mouth somehow full of teeth, so much more pronounced than she remembered. It stole her breath away, but then a more plausible, more appealing explanation occurred to her, and she brightened. “Are you... a vampire?”
He laughed again. “What? One of your metrosexual pin-ups? Do you know how pitifully naive you girls sound?”
          He continued to laugh at her.
          He could not be a vampire. She had first met Bern at the school gate in bright sunshine.
          Girls, plural? That cut into her heart. “But you promised…”
          “What?” he said, his laughter drying at once. “Promises, promises. They mean nothing. When your parents wake tomorrow they’ll find their adorable daughter, only she’ll be different, she’ll have attitude… and you know what? They won’t question it. They’ll tell themselves its your hormones. Their daughter has become an adolescent. They’ll never suspect you’ve been replaced by another; a doppelgänger.”
          “I don’t understand.”
          “See for yourself,” he said, pointing his finger back towards her parent’s house.
          When she looked the light was on in her bedroom and there, stood at the window, smiling, even waving at her, she saw herself, only wasn’t this girl, her double, slightly older and—even from this distance—somehow harder around the edges.
          Terror much blacker than the interior of that car engulfed her, thick and intoxicating like smoke fumes. She wanted to scream but had no breath to expel. A shudder passing involuntarily along her spine.
          “What will happen to me?” she asked at last.
          “Well, lil’ bird, you’re disposable,” he said, and then the laughter returned.
          She screamed then, at the top of her lungs, but to no avail, for the engine roared and the tyres screeched and the black car skidded away into the night.


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