The Darlings

The house at Coppice Close had been built with hate.

The developer had hated being forced by the local council to build on a brownfield site, a place that had once been an opencast mine. The bricklayers had hated each other for imagined slights committed against each other in the past. The carpenters had hated the developers for under paying them. The plumbers just hated being plumbers. One of the electricians hated being a man, and the others had hated working in the tension of the man’s unhappiness. The foreman had hated the build for the arguing and fighting and sheer bloody bad feeling that went on every day. It had rained the whole time the building was going up. Something blocked the sewers one day and they backed up and flooded the ground floor. They had to dig out the whole drain to find out what it was. A cat had crawled in through an open inspection hatch trying to find somewhere to give birth to her kittens. They had all drowned, died in trying to live, and had become swollen and putrid. The house had no chance from the start.

It was going to be a bad place even before its first brick was laid.

Joy Marler loved the house at first sight.

It was only a marketing illustration, a drawing in a sales pamphlet that she found on a table at her daughter’s playgroup, but it was everything she’d ever dreamed about: detached; private; south facing rear garden; at the end of a close; modern; new; everything. It had everything. So she had to have it.

The next day, Joy went to look at it, just to make sure. Dennis needed the car for work so she had to drop her daughter at the playgroup and then catch two buses to get there, which made her think for a while but didn’t put her off. The pavement of the road was still unmade, and the roads themselves were covered in muck and mud from the lorries, but that didn’t put her off either, and she got there. The shell of the house was complete, the roof was on and the windows were in so what she saw was almost the finished article from the outside. There were still all the final fixings to do inside, plumbing and electrics and what have you, but she could see what the house was going to look like when it was finished. She saw the shape of it, and liked it. She saw the position, last house on the street, and liked that, too. In a slow turn, she imagined what the area would look like on a sunny day in summer, when everything was all finished. She like that most of all, and she smiled to herself, looking at the house.

The house looked back at her, at what she was. She was coming. The house waited.

Joy told her husband about it when he came home from work. Dennis knew from the way she spoke that, in his wife’s mind, they’d already bought the house. He pointed out that they couldn’t afford it, that it was on the wrong side of town for them, that it was far away from their families and friends, and even farther away from the factory he worked in. The kids would have to go to a different school, he’d said, they’d have to make new friends, too, and they’d lose all their old ones. It just wasn’t a practical, sensible choice really.

He might as well have been talking to the house.

Joy had already made contact with the developers. She’d phoned them as soon as she’d stepped out of the playgroup. She’d phoned them again when she got home, and again in the afternoon. She did the same the following day, and the day after that, and for the next three days, until the developers got so sick of her that they just gave in and put her at the front of the queue. She used the same tactics on Dennis to get him to apply for the mortgage that they couldn’t really afford. He’d been in this position before, though. He just gave in sooner.

That had been at the end of September, just seven weeks ago. When the delivery team finalised the sign-off of the building last Thursday, Joy was outside in the family Ford Fiesta with the kids, David and Susan. Dennis and his brothers were sitting in the hired van waiting to unload the contents of their old house.

The developer handed the keys over and Joy started dancing.

Today was Saturday.

Standing in the doorway to the kitchen, David watched as his sister’s tears trickled down her face. Susan’s head was tilted forward and leaned against his chest. Her tears ran in a watery line towards her chin and somehow came out through her nose. She cried silently. Her eyes were closed. David couldn’t understand how tears could still come even when someone’s eyes were closed.

Susan had her hands over her ears, but David knew she could hear them. Dad was shouting, Mum was screeching. They’d been at it for ages, arguing like that. Dad was standing at one end of the kitchen, leaning against the cooker. His arms were folded, which was good. It was when they were unfolded that things got bad. His name was Dennis. It was only recently that David had realised that a Dad could have a name.

He already knew that his Mum’s name was Joy because people shouted her name out whenever they went out walking. She was tall, although shorter than her husband. They were now both in their late twenties, and had been together since they’d met at school. She had blonde hair, his was a dirty brown. David thought she was pretty, though she didn’t look pretty just now. She’d been crying, and she’d wiped mascara all across her face. She kept walking up and down the kitchen with her hands pressed on her hips. Sometimes she would stop and raise a hand and jab a finger at Dennis as she spoke. It was like she was stabbing him with bad words. Dennis just stood and took it, looking bored, his top lip up on one side. Sometimes she would say something and he’d shout back at her. David could see that his father was getting angry. Dennis had thick eyebrows. When he got angry his eyebrows came closer and closer together until they were just one solid nasty line. They were meeting now. Dennis unfolded his arms. David wrapped his arms tighter around his sister.

His mother was saying something about someone called Melody. No, not Melody. Her nose had started to block with all the crying. Was it Melanie? Someone called Melanie? David wasn’t sure that was the right name. Whatever it was, that was what did it.

“Right,” said Dennis, pushing himself away from the cooker. “That’s enough of this shit. I don’t have to take this. I’ve done nothing. I’ll be fucked if I’m going to stand here and get slaughtered for something I’ve not done. Fuck it. I’m off. You’re on your own.”

Dennis grabbed his jacket from the back of a kitchen chair and strode towards the rear door of the house. He was a slack man and he sometimes walked like he was a puppet, all loose and floppy, but when he got angry he sort of set and turned hard. He was hard now, and when Joy tried to stop him he brushed her away with just a wave of his arm. It was a heavy push rather than a blow that caught her. Joy fell across the chair that had been dragged out of position when Dennis pulled his jacket off it. She slid down between the chair and the kitchen table. Before she could get to her feet, Dennis had slammed the door behind him. He hadn’t looked back.

Pushing the chair out of the way, Joy got up and ran to the door. She pulled it open and ran through it. David heard her shouting his father’s name seven times. He counted. She shouted really loud. When she came back in she looked wild, like a cat looks when it’s chased by a dog, wide eyed and bared teeth. She walked up towards the cooker where Dennis had been standing and almost tripped over the fallen chair. She picked it up and righted it and put it back in place. Her hands gripped the shiny wood where Dennis’s jacket had been just a few moments ago. Releasing the chair, she put both hands into the nest of her hair and grabbed it tightly and stamped once, hard.

“Bastard,” she said, through her teeth.

It was only then that she noticed her children.

Joy came and crouched down and put one arm around Susan and one hand behind David’s head. “Sorry, David,” she said, her hand working in his hair. “Don’t cry, Suze. It’s just an argument, babe, that’s all. Mummy and Daddy’ve just had a little argument. Don’t you worry, love. It’ll be alright.”

Joy hadn’t looked at Susan at all as she’d been speaking. She hadn’t looked at David, either. She’d been staring at the back door all the time. David knew what she was going to do.

“Mum,” said David.

Joy turned to face her son. He pulled away from Susan but Joy’s eyes stayed fixed on the space where he had been. He knew that she was thinking about something else.

“You can’t leave us, mum,” he said.

Joy focused on him again. She shook her head. “I’m not going to leave you, Davey boy. Never! I’d never leave my darlings. Never, ever.” She stood up. When she spoke again, it was as if she was speaking to herself. “I’ve just got to go out for a minute, though. Just a few minutes, that’s all. I’ve got to find Den. It’s really, really important, love. I’ve got to find him before… I’ve got to find him first, that’s all. Bring him home to his family. To us. Won’t take long. I know where he’ll be. I’ll be straight there and back. Twenty minutes it’ll take, no more than that. Thirty, tops.” She was walking towards the back door, walking backwards away from her children. “Just you two sit tight and wait here. Wait in the living room. Watch telly for a bit.” Grabbing her handbag from the table, she turned and took a coat from the coat hook on the back of the door. She slipped the long key out of the lock and put it in her coat pocket. “Straight there and back,” she said. “Promise. I’ll bring some chish and fips if the chippy’s still open. You want some chish and fips, don’t you?” She nodded, though her children had remained silent. “Yeah, course you do. I’ll pick some up. And battered sausages, too, yes? Yes. Right. Won’t be long.” She stepped through the door. A cold draught of air forced its way into the kitchen. As she pulled the door shut she said, “Sit tight.” They heard the key rattle in the lock and then she was gone. They were alone.

The house surrounded them.

“No,” said David.

He couldn’t believe it. She’d left them. His mother had left them alone, in a strange house, in a strange place. Both of them, Mum and Dad, they’d just walked out on their own children. He’d watched his mother pick up her things and take out the key and walk out of the door and lock it behind her. He hadn’t done anything to stop her. He just couldn’t move. He couldn’t even speak. It had seemed like a slow dream, something he could see but not touch. And now she was gone. They were on their own.

He realised that he’d been squeezing his sister so hard that she couldn’t speak either. He dropped his arms and Susan sucked in a great gulp of air. It came back out as a howling wail. David ignored the cry and ran into the living room. The curtains were closed. He threw them apart and pressed his face to the glass. A fog of breath misted his view. He pulled away to the side and shaded his eyes from the reflected light of the room behind him so that he could see into the darkness outside.

There was nothing to see. There was nobody there. Just an empty street, full of empty houses. In the distance, two tall street lamps threw a light as harsh as truth on to the wet world into which his parents had vanished.

The house stood at the end of a cul-de-sac, a dead end street. It was a new-build detached house with three bedrooms and a garage and no neighbours. His mother had told him she chose it because she’d always wanted to live on a cul-de-sac. She’d always wanted a private, south-facing back garden, too, and the long lawn stretching down to the woods behind the house gave her that. She’d brought David and Susan to look at it weeks ago, while the loud-voiced builders were still working on it. That was when she’d explained why she wanted this house so much. They’d been the first family to move in when they’d arrived two days ago. They’d driven up in little car and the big lorry and they’d climbed out and stood on the pavement in front of the house. Joy had performed a little hopping dance of happiness before running up to the front door and dropping the key in her excitement. They’d all been excited, all four of them.

Now there were just the two of them, and their hearts raced for completely different reasons.

The house was strange.

It was a place that was strange to them, a place filled with dark corners and unknown hiding places, somewhere that didn’t smell right, that felt cold and unwelcoming and wrong. They’d brought along a few lamps but naked light bulbs glared down from most of the ceilings. They hadn’t been in long enough to do any decorating and almost all of the rooms were uncarpeted, just a few rugs and mats here and there to avoid splinters from the bare floorboards. Curtains or blinds had been put up in the main rooms, but the others were bare and open, undefended. Walking around the house in anything except stockinged feet or slippers made stifled echoes, and the uncovered and unpainted walls and floors just passed the sound around, the echoes shushing along and around them as they moved.

Susan came into the living room. She’d stopped crying but she was snivelling quietly. David saw her reflection in the window and he pulled the curtains together and walked over to her. He led her to the sofa and they sat down together and stared at the television screen. It was switched off. All they could see were their own reflections.

He saw himself, a boy of eight (nearly nine is what he says when asked), with blond hair and dark blue eyes, skinny like all the boys his age, sitting with his legs crossed at the ankles, holding the hand of his sister. She was almost six, small for her age, round and pretty, with brown hair and browner eyes. David had loved her since the day she’d arrived in the world. One birthday, Joy had showed them a photograph of him as a toddler lying on his back on the floor next to a newborn Susan. They were holding hands and looking at each other and laughing. “You’ll always have each other.” That’s what she’d said. He’d felt good when she’d said it. Now, he wasn’t even sure why she’d said it.

Susan was a quiet girl. She was chatty when she got giddy, which she did whenever she they were playing, but she was usually shyly silent. She was holding David’s left hand in both of hers, clutching it tight and saying nothing.

“It’ll be alright, Suze,” he said.

Susan didn’t reply. She didn’t move.

“Shall we put the telly on?”

Susan gave a little hitch of her shoulders. She didn’t look up.

David picked up the remote control. The little red standby light changed to green and the screen sprang to life. It was a news programme, an item about the Queen. He pressed the button for the channel guide.

“Cbeebies?” he said.

Susan shrugged again, then nodded. She sniffed hard.

David scrolled through the programme list until he found the channel. A man was reading a story from a book. It was a story about a bear that couldn’t sleep. He looked at his sister. She was watching in a grudging way, her forehead lowered, looking at the screen in glances. He wished she would fall asleep. If she did, he wouldn’t have to see her so upset and sad. He could take her upstairs and put her to bed and sit with her until Mum and Dad came back from wherever they’d gone.

Mum and Dad.

He started to think about his parents. The more he thought about them, the more his anger boiled. This wasn’t the first time they’d done something like this. Only this summer, they’d taken them to the pub for lunch. It’d been red hot and they’d already been drinking a lot by the time Aunty Steph and Uncle Andrew arrived. Then a couple of friends turned up, and then some more friends, some more people David didn’t know. There was a crowd of them by the evening. David and Susan were left out in the children’s play area, playing with the children of these other friends that they didn’t know, most of them older children who didn’t want to play with just kids like David and Susan. David had a fight with one of them. The boy was bigger but David hurt him with a hard kick between his legs. The other children left them alone after that. It was a long time later that their parents came to collect them. They said they’d been keeping an eye on them through the pub window but David knew they were lying. They would have come out to break up the fight if they’d been watching. Both of them wobbled all the way home. And they’d called David a mardy arse for not speaking to them, as if he was the one who’d done something wrong. David sat there, feeling his face warming with rage.

Then CBeebies went off.

Susan looked at him.

He shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said.

A voice from the telly said that CBeebies would be back tomorrow morning from six. The screen went blank. David sighed and pressed the button and the standby light blinked on again.

“It’s finished,” said David. “Must be time for your bed.”

They heard a dull clang echo through the house.

Susan grabbed her brother. “What was that?” she said.

Her tiny fingernails were digging in to his arm. David didn’t answer. Her voice was usually quiet and soft but he noticed an edge to it now. Susan was frightened. He felt something bloom in his chest and realised that he was scared, too. He stood up and walked slowly to the living room door. Susan got up and followed close behind him, one hand clinging to the back of his trousers for comfort.

David listened to the house.

He heard nothing. He unhooked Susan’s hand and put a finger to his lips and motioned for her to wait in the living room. Susan shook her head violently at the thought of being left completely alone. She fastened her hand tighter on David’s belt. He scowled at her. After standing there and listening for another few minutes he slowly pulled the door open and put his head out into the hallway.

The hallway led from the front door past the stairs and the living room and through to the kitchen at the rear. They both came out of the living room and turned to the right, walking slowly towards the kitchen, treading silently on the uncarpeted hall floorboards. As they came close to the kitchen door, they heard another clang.

It came from the radiator right beside them.

Susan squealed and jumped at the same time. She ran around David, away from the radiator, and threw both arms around her brother.

“What is it, David?” she said. “What’s that noise?”

David reached out and touched the radiator. It was warm.

“It’s the central heating,” he said. “It’s just come on. The pipes must make that noise when they start to heat up. That’s what it was. Nothing to worry about, Suze.”

She looked up at him but said nothing.

“Honest, Suze,” he said. “There’s nobody here. Come on, I’ll show you. We’ll go and check the kitchen and make sure the door’s still locked and everything and then we’ll get you upstairs and into bed. Okay?”

Susan nodded. David took her hand in his and together they walked into the kitchen. Little spotlights on the ceiling shone into all the corners of the room. Under-cabinet strip lights illuminated the work surfaces. The red digits of the clock on the cooker glowed steadily. They listened together. They heard only the tick of the big wall clock and the hum of the double-doored fridge. David thought he heard another sound. It was there and not there, like it was just out of reach, high and thin, like a whistle in his head. It made him think of ice.

“See?” said David. “Told you it was alright, didn’t I?” He walked over to the kitchen door, the door through which his mother had run. He turned the handle and rattled the door. “Locked tight, that is,” he said. Standing on tiptoes, he looked out of the kitchen window at the rear garden. All he could see was darkness. He turned round. “Nothing there,” he said, smiling at his sister.

Susan screamed.

David jumped in the air, all his calmness shredded by the sound of his sister’s howl. His heart began to hammer and his breath became hard to gather, like his chest had turned to concrete. Susan had moved in front of him, putting David between her and the kitchen window. Each of her hands clutched a fistful of his sweatshirt. She was shivering. He put his arms around her and slowly turned his head.

Looking in at them was a cat.

It was perched on the thin strip of the outside window sill. It was a scruffy, ragged thing, an ordinary silver and white tabby with an ‘M’ pattern on its forehead, but all the light from the kitchen seemed to find its eyes and fill them with a yellow glow. With the full darkness of the night behind it, the cat seemed to be just a pair of watching eyes; two sly and sullen, watching and waiting eyes.

“It’s just a cat,” said David. “Just a silly old cat.” He eased away from his sister and walked up to the window and waved his arms. “Psht,” he said, waving his arms around. “Go away, you mangy old thing.” The cat sat and glared at him, unmoving. David picked up a towel and flicked it at the cat. Still it didn’t move. Susan came alongside him and began waving and shouting too, but the cat stayed where it was. They stopped, wondering what to do next.

They saw the cat tense. Its ears flicked backwards, and then its head rotated to look out into the darkness of the rear garden. The head swivelled towards them, and away again, and then it snapped back to look at them one last time. The cat bared its teeth in a spitting hiss, at them or at something else, and then leapt down from the sill and out of their sight.

The children looked at each other.

“What happened, Davy?” said Susan. “Where’d it go?”

David shook his head. Trembling, he realised that he was still scared. He couldn’t let Susan see that, though. “Dunno,” he said. “Let’s have a look.”

The rear door of the house was half-glazed, the glass covered by a pretty but ineffectual lace curtain. The curtain was supposed to prevent people outside from looking in, but it had the opposite effect. From the inside, nobody could see what was outside when it was dark, but as soon as a light was switched on in the kitchen, anybody outside had a clear view through the now translucent curtain into the room. David and Susan walked slowly up to the curtain now, and pulled it to one side. A pool of light from the glazed door lit the small paved patio area just outside. It framed the shadows of their own heads peering out into the night blackness. The cat was gone.

“Something must’ve frightened it off,” said David. “Another cat, or a dog or something.”

“Something?” said Susan. “What sort of something?”

“I don’t know, do I?” he spat. “It’s just gone. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

Susan nodded her head in silence. He’d upset her.

“Sorry, Suze,” he said. He ruffled her hair and smiled at her. “Come on. Let’s go and get you ready for bed, shall we?”

They walked out of the kitchen and back into the hall, Susan leading the way. Her head was down and she ran her hand along the wall as she walked. At the end of the hall, David tried the handle to the front door. It was locked tight. The keys were in his mother’s handbag.

Susan had been watching her brother. When he’d finished his checks, she sighed and then climbed the first few bare wooden steps. On the third step she stopped and turned to face him. Her mouth was turned downwards and her wet brown eyes shone like a sad puppy’s.

“I don’t like this house, Davy,” she said. “It’s not like home.”

Home was a little terraced house on the other side of the city. It was the house they’d both been born into. Until the move here, it had been all they knew of the world. Nanna Mu lived at the end of the same road, and Nanna Jean and New Grandad Nick lived just across the park behind home. Nanna Mu lived on her own now that Grandad Pat had gone up the big chimney to heaven. New Grandad Nick wasn’t a real Grandad until he got married to Nanna Jean last year, after Grandad John left her to go and live in That London with That Woman. Home had been smaller than the new house: one living room and a kitchen, like the new house but every room had been smaller. There were only two bedrooms, so Dennis and Joy had the front bedroom and David and Susan had a bunk bed in the back one, and there was a little bathroom that you couldn’t walk into without bumping something. There was no front garden and only a yard at the back that they’d shared with weird Ernest at one end and Lol and Kate next door and the Masoods over in the other corner. At night, when they were watching telly, you could hear people talking in both of the houses on either side of home. They’d been all squashed together and busy but it had been alright, it had been enough for all of them. It had been home. At least, that’s what he’d thought.

“No,” he said. “It isn’t home. Not yet, anyway. It might be one day, though. I suppose we just have to make it into one. You know, make friends with other kids, people that live around here, just like we did at home.”

The sad puppy looked at him. “There aren’t any, Davy. Nobody lives round here, do they? There’s just us.”

David took her hand and began climbing up the stairs beside her.

“There will be,” he said. “People will come. It’s just ‘cause it’s new, that’s all. We’re the first, but there’ll be loads of other families coming to live near us soon. Just you wait. There’ll be hundreds of kids to play with soon.”

They stopped at the top of the stairs and looked out of the little window that faced out to the side. They could see the wall of the house next door, lit dimly by the ceiling light on the landing where they stood. The house was unoccupied and the windows that they could see were just dark panes of shadow. Behind the house was a garden full of more shadow, and at the end were the woods, black painted on black. They could see nobody, and could hear nothing. It had started to rain.

“Hundreds,” said David.

As they looked out into the darkness, a light flickered at the front door below them.

The inner and outer doors of the entrance vestibule were glazed to provide natural light to the hallway. The inner door was plain glass, the outer door patterned to obscure the view into the house. The light outside struck the pattern on the outer door and made it sparkle for a second. It wasn’t a simple flash. It was a sweep of light, like the moving beam of a torch. And then it was gone, as if the torch had been switched off.

The children stood unmoving at the top of the stairs, watching the door, waiting to see if the light came again. David looked out through the landing window but couldn’t see anything. He crouched down, eyes fastened on the swirling pattern of the front door. Susan crouched down beside him. He knew she was shaking without even touching her. He could tell from the tremor in her voice when she spoke.

“What is it, David?” whispered Susan.

He shook his head, not looking at her, still watching the front door. “Probably nothing,” he said, trying to brave it out but speaking quietly. “Could’ve just been a car going past the end of the road.”

“What if it isn’t?” she said.

“It must be something like that,” he said. “What else could it be?”

Susan thought for a moment. “Might be baddies,” she said, in a matter of fact voice. She thought some more, and the meaning of what she’d said came to her. “It might be burglars, Davey. What should we do?”

That was when the enormity of what his parents had done really hit David.

He tried to think of some answers to his sister’s question. We could phone Nana Jean or someone, he thought, or even the police if we have to. Then he remembered what had started the argument between Mum and Dad. Dad had said that they’d been stupid rushing to move in like they had. There’d been no need, he’d said to Joy, just a few hours ago. Most of the estate was a building site. They hadn’t even connected the gas and electrics and water to half of it, and none of the telephone lines we’re working yet, but we’d still had to rush it through, hadn’t we, he’d said, just to please you, just to get us in as soon as possible. Because you just couldn’t wait, could you? That’s when he’d called her a selfish cow, and then everything had kicked off.

None of the telephone lines we’re working.

David tried to think of some other answers. We could get dressed, he thought, and go and find a house with someone in it and knock on the door and wait there until Mum and Dad came back. But that would mean going outside, where whatever made the beam of light was, and walking on roads that they didn’t know, in the dark and the rain. And they couldn’t open the doors anyway. Everything was locked. He wondered if they could open a window and just shout for help. He tried to lift the handle of the landing window. It wouldn’t budge. Then he saw the little keyhole embedded in the handle. Even the windows have locks on them, he thought, which made him wonder what they would do if the house caught fire. After a few minutes of running a horror show of flames and burning flesh through his mind, he’d frightened himself enough to feel the need the toilet. He started to get angry with his Mum and Dad all over again.

That was when the first bad thought came to him.

What if they don’t come back?

What if they’ve had a fight and been arrested and put in jail? That wouldn’t be too bad, he thought. The police would come to the house and find the two of us and take us to Nanna Jean or something. And Mum and Dad would get into trouble. Serve ‘em right, he thought.

Then the second bad thought occurred to him.

But what if they’ve been in an accident?

What if they’ve been hit by a car and knocked unconscious and ended up in hospital and can’t tell anyone about us? Nobody would come then, not for ages, days or weeks or whatever. He decided that, if nobody came for them by morning, they’d just have to find a way to break a window and start screaming for help. And Mum and Dad would probably be hurt, and they’d still get into trouble. David didn’t feel bad about that idea, either.

And then the worst thought of all got him.

What if they don’t want to come back?

What if they’re arguing because of us and they decide they don’t want us any more and they just go away and don’t come back? What if they don’t want to be together any more? What if they’ve run off and left us? Could we go and live with Nanna Jean or Nanna Mu? Or would we have to go into a home or something?

Susan was still waiting for an answer. She’d been watching him as he’d tried to come up with something. They were both still standing at the top of the stairs. It had been only a few seconds since she’d spoken, but it felt like a long time ago to David. He was still angry with his parents, and he was becoming frustrated by not knowing what to do. There’d been no more sign of the light, and the silence roared.

“I don’t know,” he said, feeling hot and helpless and not able to look at her. “I don’t know what it might be. And I don’t know what we could do.” He took hold of his sister’s arm and began leading her towards the bathroom. “All we can do right now is get ourselves ready for bed and wait for Mum and Dad.”

They walked into the bathroom.

“Are we having a bath?” said Susan.

David shook his head. “I can’t be bothered,” he said. “Let’s just brush teeth and get in bed and wait for Mum and Dad.”

He took Susan’s pink toothbrush and spread too much toothpaste on it and handed it to her. He overloaded his own blue toothbrush in the same way.

“I’ve got a loose tooth,” said Susan, pointing at her mouth. “Here. See?”

David peered at the tiny teeth on display. One at the front did look different to the others.

“Brush it anyway,” he said.

They brushed together in silence, David vigorously and haphazardly in the way he’d seen his father do it, Susan slowly and carefully like her mother. When they’d finished they bent their heads over the sink to spit and bumped heads. When they laughed, the toothpaste foam splattered all over the sink, which made them laugh more. They cleaned their brushes and wiped their mouths and walked back out of the bathroom and into Susan’s bedroom.

The room was small and undecorated apart from a coat of magnolia on the walls and white on the ceiling and woodwork. The hastily hung curtains didn’t fit properly, and when David pulled them together a little light leaked in all around them.

Susan sat on her Sleeping Beauty quilt and turned on her Snow White bedside lamp and took off her Frozen dressing gown. She was wearing Cinderella pyjamas. She climbed into bed and laid down and pulled the quilt up to her neck. She didn’t look upset now. She looked tired.

David smiled. “You love your Disney characters, don’t you, Suze?”

Susan nodded. She didn’t smile, though.

“Do you love Mummy and Daddy, Davey?”

Years later, David recalled his sister asking him this question, and his answer. He wondered if this was the precise time when he stopped being a child. When he stopped being normal. He stood beside the cartoon covered bed and looked at his sister and thought about the question. He sat on the edge of the bed before he spoke.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know what love feels like, really. I know when something tastes good, like ice cream, or bad, like Brussels sprouts. I know I like tickles but I don’t like smacks. I know I’m happy when it’s sunny and warm and I’m sad when it’s cold and wet. I don’t know about love, though. Don’t know what that feels like at all.” He thought about the question some more, and then he smiled. “I must know what love feels like, though. ‘Cause of you, Suze. You’re ice cream on a sunny day, you are, with tickles afterwards.”

Susan smiled now, and took hold of his hand again. She was quiet for a few minutes. When she spoke, her smile had gone. It was another big question.

“What does hate feel like, Davey?”

All this talking about feelings made David uncomfortable and agitated. He scratched his head with both hands and then put one hand under his armpit and picked his nose with the other hand. He shrugged. “I dunno. Suppose it must like a pain. In your heart or somewhere. Must make you feel bad. Not bad like poorly. Bad like… a baddie. Like someone nasty.” David closed his eyes. All he could see was ink-black darkness. “I think I can understand hate a lot easier than love.”

David stood up. “Sleep now,” he said, and he bent over and kissed his sister on the forehead, like he always did every night. “I’ll leave the light on. Okay?”

Susan nodded. As he was walking out of the room, she said, “And don’t close the door.”

Leaving the door half-open, David walked to his own bedroom, the next room along the landing. He didn’t get changed into his pyjamas. He turned on the bedside light and laid down fully clothed on the bed with his hands behind his head. He stared at the round glow on the ceiling made by the light from the opening at the top of the lamp shade. The bulb in the lamp was a cheap energy saver and it cast a weak yellow glow. David thought it was like looking at a moon made of sick.

He was feeling sick himself. Sick with frustration at not being able to do anything to make sure Susan was safe, sick with the tension of being on guard in a place he didn’t know, a little sick with fear, but sick more than anything with anger.

His fucking parents!

As soon as the word came into his mind he felt guilty. His Mum never swore, hated swearing, told strangers off when they swore near her kids. It was at that moment that David realised why his Dad swore at his Mum when they started arguing. It was a way to hurt her without touching her.

And then David said, “Fuck it.”

And he said it again, and again, and kept saying it, each repetition coming faster and louder than the last until he rolled over on his bed and howled the last one face down into his pillow.

He heard the shush of footsteps and raised his head and saw Susan standing in the doorway.

“What’s the matter, Davey?”

David rolled over onto his back and made space for his sister. She climbed onto his bed and curled into a foetal shape at his side. He put his arm round her and sighed.

“Sorry, Suze,” he said. “I didn’t mean for you to hear that. I was just letting off. I’m fed up, I suppose. Fed up with Mum and Dad. They should be here, shouldn’t they? It’s not right, leaving us two on our own. We’re only young kids, aren’t we? They should be here looking after us, not in the pub or wherever they’ve gone. I mean, anything could happen, couldn’t it? It’s just not right, Suze, and it makes me mad. Just… fucking mad. Sorry.”

Susan reached over and laid an arm on David’s chest. “Don’t be angry,” she said. “It’ll be alright. They’ll be back soon and everything’ll be alright again, won’t it?”

David didn’t answer his sister.

Outside, in the back garden, a sharp gust lifted an empty Pepsi can that had been left behind by the builders. The wind drove it along, across the patio, scudding it over the stone slabs. It clattered along until it landed in the border of the wet, grassy lawn, where it stuck, soundless once more. It stayed there for months.

They didn’t hear the rattle of a can. The noise the children heard was someone rattling the back door.

The house didn’t help them. It let the sound scurry around and climb the stairs and linger in the air outside the bedroom door. Both children sat up straight, still holding on to each other but stiff and tense, listening to the house, listening to the dark night silence.

“David?” whispered Susan.

Putting a finger to his lips, David slipped off the bed and walked on tiptoes to his bedroom door. As he pulled it open, the hinges squeaked. He opened it more slowly, but the squeak just became longer and more drawn out. Losing patience, he pulled the door open and stepped out on to the landing. He stood listening again, but heard only the high, empty sound of quietness.

“What was it?” said Susan.

David was standing in the doorway, his back to his sister, looking down. He was breathing deeply, and his answer was a peevish snap. “Stop asking me stupid questions, will you?” He came back to the bed and lifted Susan out by her arm. “Come on,” he said. “We can’t just sit here. We’ve got to do something.”

“What do you mean, David?” she said. “What are we going to do?”

“Shush,” he said.

He led her slowly down the stairs, stopping and listening to the house whenever a floorboard creaked. Carefully and quietly they made their way into the kitchen. David picked up a red plastic laundry basket and placed it in the middle of the floor. He went to a drawer beside the sink and picked out a handful of table knives and three larger knives, a bread knife and a carving knife and a wide bladed chef’s knife. He placed these in the bottom of the basket and covered them with a kitchen towel. He began opening and closing cupboards until he found the box he was looking for. It contained the glassware from home. He picked out tumblers and pint glasses and shot glasses and vases and placed them on top of the towel. He put another towel over these and then added more glassware to the basket. He tested the weight. It was heavy and a little too big for a boy his size to handle easily but he could still carry it.

Susan had parked herself on a kitchen chair. She watched her brother fill the basket in silence. David loved her and Susan knew that, but she also knew that he had a temper and she could see from his pinched lips and the way he was breathing that he was in an angry mood. She knew too that he would never hurt her, so she had to ask.

“What are you doing?”

David stood up and put his hands on his hips, breathing steadily. He didn’t look at Susan. He looked at the basket.

“Ammunition,” he said. “If anyone breaks in here, we’ve got to be able to defend ourselves, so now we can. Now we just need to find somewhere we can make into a fortress. And I think we should set some traps, too.”

“Traps?”

He nodded. “Nothing deadly, Suze. Just something to let us know where they are.” David was smiling when he spoke, but Susan didn’t feel happy.

David pulled one of the kitchen chairs to the back door and leaned the chair against the door handle so that the rear legs were just slightly off the floor. He took some cups and plates off the draining board and placed them on the edge of the chair seat. He studied the trap for a moment and then began searching the cupboard under the sink. After a few minutes he stood up smiling again and holding a washing line. He tied one end of the line around a leg of the chair and then trailed it through the kitchen door and along the hallway to the inner door of the vestibule. Like the front door, this door opened into the vestibule. David looped the other end of the line around the legs of the telephone table that stood in the hallway and tied it to the handle of the inner door. If anyone opened it, the telephone table would topple over and the chair in the kitchen would deposit a ceramic minefield at the back door. He looked at the telephone table for a moment and then went into the living room. He came back with an empty glass candleholder, a large one that looked like an upended bell jar. He put the candleholder on the edge of the telephone table.

When he turned round, Susan became even less happy. The smile on her brother’s face had changed. It wasn’t a good smile.

She could see his teeth.

David looked up the stairs.

“Go up, Susan,” he said. “Wait for me at the top.”

Susan climbed the stairs slowly. They seemed bigger now, steeper and harder to climb. When she got to the top she turned around and leaned against the wall, hands behind her back. David was struggling up the stairs, the laundry basket held in front of him. He stopped every few steps to refresh his grip, but he kept on coming. When he reached the top he puffed out a big gasp of air. He still didn’t look at his sister.

“Don’t touch anything,” he said.

He went into his parents’ bedroom. Susan heard him grunting and scuffling. He came out backwards, dragging something. It was the big satin box that stood at the foot of their bed, the one that held all the bedlinen. It was heavy, but the round plastic feet slipped easily across the bare floorboards. David dragged it right to the head to the stairs, blocking access to the upper floor completely. He went back into the bedroom and this time came back with the quilt from the bed. Throwing one end over the satin box and part way down the stairs, he pushed the other end under the laundry basket, pulling and tugging the quilt into place until it made a soft, flat surface for them to sit on. He looked down int the darkened hallway, and nodded. Removing the top towel from the basket, he began taking the glassware items out and lining them up behind the linen box. When they were all out, he took the knives and cutlery and laid them on top of the box. He stood up and checked his work one last time.

Then he switched off the lights.

The world had turned. The rainclouds had passed and a thin crescent moon hung like a blade in the black night sky. The weak, harsh moonlight reached in through the side window and gave them enough light to see each other, but not much more.

“I don’t like the dark,” said Susan. “You know I don’t. It makes me frightened. Can’t we have the light back on, please?”

She saw the deathly white face of her brother move from side to side.

“Can’t,” he said. “If we have the light on, they’ll be able to see us, won’t they?”

“Who will?”

“Whoever breaks in,” he said, and, after a pause, “if they break in. Don’t worry, they won’t. Nobody will. There’s nothing to steal, is there?”

There was silence for a moment.

“How do they know?” said Susan.

“What?”

“How do burglars know there’s nothing to steal?”

“I dunno,” said David. “They must… I dunno. Anyway, it doesn’t matter if they do, now, does it? We’re ready for them, aren’t we?”

Susan didn’t answer. He thought he saw her nod, but it might just have been a shrug. He thought he saw her stifle a yawn, too. He definitely heard it.

“Wait there,” he said. “Don’t move.”

He went into Susan’s bedroom and came back out with her dressing gown and a pillow. While she was putting on the dressing gown, he placed the pillow at one end of the now empty laundry basket and pushed it into the corner at the top of the stairs.

“Here,” he said. “You must be tired. Sit in there and have a little rest.”

Susan climbed into the basket and sat down and rested against the pillow.

David leaned back against the wall beside his sister and watched the darkness gather around them.

Susan fell asleep.

David heard her breathing slowing down. He turned his head to watch as she snuggled and wriggled in the Susan-sized laundry basket until she was comfortable. She folded her arms around herself and pouted and jumped once and then gave in to irresistible sleep. He was glad. He had begun thinking bad thoughts and he was worried that they might come out and frighten her.

They frightened him.

Images were running through his mind, horrible scenes, making him squirm and turn in the dark space beside his sleeping sister. It was like being at a cinema where you’re too close to the screen and the sound is too loud and it’s hot and uncomfortable and you just want to get out and run away but you can’t, you can’t because something is keeping you there, something is holding you, something bad, and you know something else is coming, something worse, but you can’t take your eyes off it, you can’t turn away, you can’t stop seeing it, because the bad thing isn’t just out there any more, it’s here, it’s inside you, it’s part of you.

It’s you.

He was sweating. Tickling trickles ran down from his armpits. His forehead was wet, and his hair stuck to it. He was panting like a dog. He writhed, his mind a swirling, roiling storm of thoughts and pictures, full of anger and frustration and heat. He felt as though he would burst into flame any moment now.

And then he heard a click.

The wildness was gone immediately, leaving him cool and calm and ready. He reached out and lightly placed a hand over his sister’s mouth. Susan was completely awake in an instant.

Someone was at the front door.

The clouds had returned and the moonlight was gone. They could see the white outline of the door, but it was too dark to see anything clearly. The glass panels of the vestibule looked like sheets of black marble. No light was allowed into the house, and the house would not allow any to leave.

Another click.

They were trying the door. Someone was trying to get in.

“Is it mummy?” whispered Susan.

David kept his eyes on the door as he replied, just as quietly. “Why would they creep into their own home? They’d just walk in, wouldn’t they?”

David moved forward, closer to their makeshift barricade. He knelt behind it, head down, eyes just above the parapet of the linen box. Susan stepped out of the laundry basket and came up beside him.

“Is it bad guys?” said Susan.

He didn’t answer her.

“David?” she said.

He turned his face to her. Even in the dark she could see the blazing fury in his eyes.

“Yes,” he said.

The inner door opened a little, and then someone swung it wide and pushed into the hallway. The washing line pulled the telephone table over and the big glass vase toppled off and hit the bare boards with a sound like a shriek. In the kitchen, the plates slid off the chair and hit the floor in a cacophony of destruction.

The intruder fell over the table, tangling in the wire, and landed on the glass. A howling scream of pain filled the air.

David stood up. He picked up a pint pot and threw it at the figure on the floor, and then he picked up a tumbler and threw that. Susan grabbed a shot glass and threw it in the same direction. She could hear a sound coming from her brother, a growling noise deep in his throat. That frightened her more than the intruder. She picked up more of the little shot glasses and threw them one after the other at the bad guy down below. David picked up a big, heavy ornate vase and, holding it with both hands, hurled it from above his head down to the foot of the stairs.

A light came on in the vestibule.

The children stopped throwing things. They were standing at the top of the stairs, panting, half-hidden by the quilt-covered linen box. There was the sound of a car driving away.

Joy stepped into the vestibule from outside. She looked up the stairs and saw her children. Then she looked down at the floor, where her husband lay dying.

Blood was pooling around Dennis. He had landed face down on the remnants of the bell-jar vase. The jagged shards on the heavy base had pierced his chest. One long shard had neatly severed the thoracic aorta and his heart was busy pumping his life out on to the bare floorboards of the house. The house greedily sucked the juice from his body. Dennis never even felt the pain of the thousand cuts that covered his hands.

Joy began screaming.

The sound she made was unstructured, unintelligible, an uncontrolled venting. She threw her hands to her head and made a move towards Dennis, lowering herself to kneel beside him. Then she saw the glitter of glass all around him. She stood and looked up the stairs again.

“What have you DONE?” she howled.

The children made no reply. Susan began to cry.

Joy reached into her handbag and pulled out her mobile and stabbed out the number for an ambulance. She looked up once more. David put his arm around his sister and pulled her to him. He said nothing.

“We were frightened,” said Susan. “We thought you were burglars.”

David looked down as his father died. His mother looked up to him. She had begun to tremble violently.

“Did you?” said Joy.

The house was silent.

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