The cold light of day was supposed to make things seem better, not worse.
But the clarity that came with the morning sun showed only too clearly the cracks slowly tearing my family apart. Around me the Saturday morning world passed by unnoticed as last night's events burned remorselessly before my eyes. I could still see it all, from my father's first contemptuous dismissive words to his last shouts of anger. I only wished he'd aimed them at me, at eighteen I was strong enough to deal with a negligent father's scorn. But his words had cut Sarah deeply, at ten still young enough to think she loved her father just because he was her daddy. All my sister had wanted was to show him how well she'd done on her Maths test, which he'd told her that she had better get at least 90% on or there would be hell to pay. But last night Paul was going out with business clients so Sarah's excitement was nothing more to him than the attention seeking of a 'time-wasting little brat.'
The sharp pain surprised me, and I glanced down to see blood trickling from a fresh cut on my hand. I had driven a nail through my skin in anger. I wasn't sorry I realised: pain was one of the few things that freed my thoughts from my home life. Most adolescents unhappy at home can just escape when they reach university, most adolescents don't have a younger sister who needs all the protection that her mum can't give and all the love that her father won't show.
I turned my gaze to the bus window, trying to divert my thoughts from pain by watching the low winter sunlight glow and glitter sharply in the mid morning frost. I stared out at the world outside in the hope of finding some release. We had left my hometown Prestham well behind now, pulled out through its rich centre and affluent suburbs and passed on through the green farmland that surrounds it. Now we drove deep into the identical grey suburbs of Elmsford. The bus took the right hand route at the end of one of the residential blocks, and started to pass through the main highway of an industrial area. You'd never know this mind if not for the sign 'Beechwood Industrial Estate' that greeted us. It looked like we were driving through green and pleasant parkland, wooded banks rearing up pleasantly on either side. The landscape gardeners have done their work well. It is impossible to tell from your eyes alone that you are surrounded by factories and warehouses, that you are encompassed by remnants of the manufacturing era that have dared to survive the Thatcherite reforms and fought their way forward to find themselves a place in modern day, service sector Britain.
We pushed onwards into a housing estate. Brief shots of dull grey and brown housing and small green smatterings of lawn flash at me through the window, the quiet of a Saturday morning making the whole area seem deserted and slightly surreal. I checked my watch again: 08.00 the liquid crystal read back at me. I decided it was now late enough. I slipped my phone out of my pocket and flicked quickly through my contact list to my sister's name.
For a few seconds the phone rang, and I winced at the thought of it waking my dad. I didn't think it was wise to give him any excuse to fly off the railings again. Then a small voice answered, tired and confused. "Hello who's this? I'm tired!"
"Hi Sarah," I said, "it's me."
"Oh is it get up time already?" Sarah moaned, "I've only just gone to sleep!"
I grimaced. Sarah had been having problems with sleeping lately, tossing and turning as she was wracked by unseen nightmares. And now my bloody father had come barging in and made everything worse. I jumped unexpectedly as Sarah suddenly spoke again, but this time in her angry voice.
"It's not get up time yet!" she accused me angrily, "I get up at 9.00 on Saturdays, mummy said so!"
"No, it's not get up time, Sarah." I said, "But I just want to talk to you in private before mummy and daddy get up."
There was a pause. Then, "Are you mad at me too?" asked Sarah nervously. She swallowed, sounding like she was biting back tears. "Do you think I'm a 'time-wasting little brat' as well?"
"No," I said flatly. "What I think is that my sister worked very hard for a very important test and did really, really well. To only make two mistakes when you have one hundred questions is amazing. And daddy was wrong not to listen to you last night."
"But daddy's still mad at me isn't he though," Sarah half cried. "I'm still in big trouble - and I've got fractions homework to do!"
"Yes, he is. But I'm still mad - very mad - at daddy. I'm going to have words with him so you just keep your head down and don't pay too much attention to what he says until I get back, okay?"
Sarah's voice was confused when she replied. "How are you going to have words with daddy? Isn't he older than you?" I hesitated for a moment, and then stepped forward into the dark unknown. For the first time I explicitly contrasted my authority with his in front of her. "Let's just put it this way," I said lightly, "who's more scary when they tell you you've been naughty?"
"You." said Sarah instantly.
For the first time in weeks I felt a sudden rush of overriding joy. I wanted to jump up and punch the air. What I was doing was working; my father would not hurt my sister the way that he had hurt me. Let him ignore her most of the time, I'd do my best to raise her in his place.
"Exactly," I said, "so don't you worry about old grumbleboots too much. I'll sort him out, you'll see. Alright now?"
"But what about my fractions?" Sarah asked worriedly. "I know I'm going to get stuck, and you're not back till Sunday!"
I couldn't help smiling at that. "Well just do what you can, and I'll help with what's left when I get back. And if mummy starts feeling a bit better she'll be happy go through it later today."
"Okay," said Sarah, in a tone that suggested she knew the fractions were going to get the better of her. "I'll try my best."
"You usually do." I concluded. "Now I've got to go sis. I don't know this bus route very well and I don't want to miss my stop. But you let me know if anything goes wrong, okay? See you soon."
"Bye Edward," she replied, sounding a lot happier than when she'd first answered a few minutes ago. I finished the call and slid the phone back into my pocket, feeling some of my tension start to drain away. So long as Sarah kept herself out of my father's way then things should probably hang together at least until I got back from the Newham University Open Day. Reluctantly I admitted there wasn't much else I could do to help her until I got home tomorrow evening. My pain was not gone, but the sharpness of its edges were muted, its full strength sleeping for a while. I turned my attention back to my journey and glanced quickly out of the window to see where we were.
The bus had pulled out from Beechwood Park and was now headed into The Waterfront Industrial Estate, the last industrial park before we reached Elmsford's centre. The Waterfront's sharp contours had proved a trickier opponent for the landscape gardeners than the flat mass of the Beechwood Estate. The road we were following ran almost constantly along the edge of a verge, which fell down quite steeply to a flat plain below. That in turn ran smoothly across to the open river beyond. The road's occasional deviations from the edge had allowed some hedges and trees to spring up, but in the main our eyes were not protected from the raw vision of man's machinery beneath.
It was a strange sight, early enough that the night lights were still showing on the swollen cylinders of rusting metal, while the great iron pipes thrust defiantly through the air without visible support until they disappeared on either side into vast structures of metal or concrete. Steam rose from several places, the white clouds rising aggressively into nature's air. From somewhere within the factory a bell sounded. Then, across a structure I had not even realised was a walkway, a man appeared; his high visibility jacket gleaming in the early morning sun. I could not see his face, just distantly his outline and a vague impression of black hair. He was walking rapidly, and the walkway was small, so he had disappeared from sight even before the bus had rounded the corner and the impact of man upon the earth was once more concealed by a few trees and a little sparse greenery.
It struck me suddenly that I would probably never see this man again, that we would both live out our parallel lives utterly unaware of the other's existence, of his tears and joys. In two utterly separate existences in an indifferent universe chance had played a perverse little trick, pointlessly crossing this stranger's life with mine, with no other consequence than to make me feel sad. But at least it made me feel something.
"You know someone works there?" the girl asked, her voice young and fresh, but with more than a trace of an Elmsford accent. She was looking up at me, her face turned inquisitively. Long blond hair fell down over her skin, skin which almost glowed with life. One hand rested on her midriff, the finger nails shining a sharp red which matched the colour of her full lips. The other waited on top of the arm rest, the fingers tapping absently against the plastic. Above her smooth midriff her chest blossomed out, and above that the lesser curve of her shoulders gave way to her small neck. She was wearing a blue denim skirt, with pink stitching ranged round the forward pockets. Above this she wore a white strappy top which, though it concealed everything between her waist and neck, left little to the imagination. Her mouth was open slightly, so that you could just see the tip of her tongue, resting gently at the corner of her mouth. But it was her eyes that caught you the most. They were large, seemingly too large for her delicate face; eyes that caught yours with their utter, defenceless openness; eyes that scarred your soul with their brilliant green fire.
I knew that the girl's fresh teenage beauty would normally have made my heart skip a beat, would have, briefly, distracted my thoughts. But today all I could feel was a detached curiosity. After seeing Sarah cry last night everything, even lust itself, was cold and grey.
"I don't know," I shrugged. "I worked last summer in a factory the other end of Elmsford. I guess it's possible that some of the guys might have moved over here."
"You worked in a fuckin factory?! Bet you were bloody awful!"
I turned cold eyes on her green. "What's your name pretty one?" I said softly.
"Daniella," she replied casually, "trying to chat me up now, college boy?".
I smiled, aware that my middle class accent was probably howling like a whirlwind in her ears. "No," I said quietly, "I don't think we'd play the boyfriend-girlfriend game very well. When I first started at the factory I was on one off shifts along with six others. By the end of the first week there were only two of us left and I was working regular full time hours. Make up your own mind how good I was."
Daniella looked at me, her eyebrows curving upwards. "I'm impressed. Most students just piss around, thinking they're so much better then the rest of us. Why you different then?"
I smiled, although no warmth reached my eyes. "I try to be the best at everything I do," I said softly. "Whether that's scoring highly in an exam, running well in a race, being good at my job. Success is the only thing that matters in this world."
"The only thing?" questioned Daniella playfully, folding her arms deliberately across her stomach so that her full breasts suddenly pressed hard against the fabric of her top, making her meaning very clear. But her smile died as I turned my eyes away and met her gaze instead. "Pretty much," I said softly. "Being around my class mates has shown me all too clearly how much damage lust can do."
Daniella looked curious. "I didn't know they had teenage pregnancies in private schools. Can't ever remember seeing a big bellied posh girl in my life."
"I didn't mean it like that," I said quickly. "It's just that if you're in a long-term relationship at my age it's more than a little confining. And if you're just casually sleeping around...". I hesitated for a second, and then went on, why not say what I thought? "It's going to come back to haunt you later."
Daniella looked at me in surprise. Then suddenly she giggled. The sound was surprisingly young and girly; it made a nice contrast with her streetwise image. "Never thought that a posh kid would be the first to agree with me," she laughed. I opened my mouth in surprise, then stopped as I noticed the small gold crucifix dangling under her neck, almost glowing in the light of the mid morning sun. "Christian." I said softly: a statement not a question.
She smiled and nodded. "South Elmsford Christ Church born and bred," she said. "You?" she asked interestedly.
"Secular atheist," I replied, slightly defensively. "Seems we don't agree about everything after all!" She looked at me, and to my amazement tears were welling up in her eyes; real, hot and fresh. I stared at her stunned for a second, but she was already wiping them away with her hand, the bright redness of her nails wonderfully sharp against her skin.
"Hey it's okay I'm still young," I joked nervously, "got plenty of time and all that to change my mind." Not that I had more than the slightest flicker of doubt about my beliefs, but I didn't need to upset her more. But Daniella seemed even more distressed by that, she swallowed sharply as though suddenly having to choke back tears.
"You can never know," she pleaded. "Death could be right around the next fucking corner."
I shrugged. "I can't just change my opinions overnight Daniella," I said, "although I'm really sorry that they upset you." Daniella closed her eyes as though what I had said caused her an even worse pain. I heard her say something to herself, almost whisper it.
"For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife." I blinked, wasn't that a quote from scripture? Part of me was beginning to think about moving past her, about trying to find another seat. But I didn't want to, I realised suddenly: I liked her. Despite her strange reaction to my atheism I wanted to talk to her, to get to know her, to have a fighting chance of playing a part in her life.
Acutely conscious of every movement I made I took her hand in mine, making sure that I held it gently. It was a touch to give reassurance, not a sexual caress. She turned to look at me through a tear stricken face. "It's okay," I said softly, "I'll come to your church if you want, you can have your chance to convert me. I'm away this Sunday but I'll be back the next. So assuming I don't just randomly drop down dead in the next few days there isn't really a problem!"
I had expected that to reassure her but Daniella only shook her head mutely. "We have so little time left," she whispered. I didn't know what to say, all I knew was that suddenly nothing seemed as important as keeping her happy, and getting her number.
"Kiss me," she whispered.
"What?" I exclaimed, startled.
"Please," she pleaded, "it's the only way you might be able to be saved." I knew that I should think about what she was saying, knew that I should stop to try and work out the terrible logic at work. But all I could see was the beauty in her misty eyes. I leaned forward, and kissed her lightly on the lips, lukewarm, gentle. Little more than how you might kiss a sister or a friend. I pulled away, but Daniella's arms came up around me, holding me firmly, lovingly. "No," she whispered, "it needs to be a real kiss." For a second I hesitated, knowing that something here was terribly, terribly wrong. And then I realised that I didn't care and drew my arms around her and held her against my chest.
Even in my limited experience I knew that first kisses are normally clumsy and hasty, driven by little more than lust. This was different. It was a long, tender embrace: almost loving. Our tongues explored each other's mouth slowly, surely, from the moist wetness at the bottom to the sensitive surface of the roof, savoring each other's taste. I could feel the dampness of her cheeks against mine, and the beautiful softness of her chest. And as we drew apart I realised, with a dull, sick sensation, that I might be beginning to fall in love. Daniella smiled at me, a warm light dancing in her eyes, and her hand softly traced a circle round my face. "I hope that's enough to save your soul," she said quietly.
And then everything changed.
Her face suddenly became withdrawn, dangerous, almost feral. Her eyes met mine, no longer a soft innocent green but now hellish witchfire. "Because now your earthly form must burn!" she hissed. I tried to react, but before I could recover from my shock her hand seized mine, hard. Her nails cut into my hand, deliberately deep, so that my blood flowed freely, bathing both our hands in red. I could feel my head swim as I suddenly had a desperate, inexplicable urge to choke. I started to raise my free hand to push Daniella away, but even as I touched her an image exploded into my head, dark and remorseless. I would have screamed but suddenly I couldn't get air through the passageway in my throat. Before me I could see again the image of the only exam paper that I had ever failed, my last GCSE. The R.S. paper sat in front of me, and I knew that I should be able to unlock its secrets, knew that I had done the work necessary to pass this last hurdle to a clean sweep of A*. But I couldn't think, couldn't concentrate. All I knew was that in an hour I would be outside and free in the wonderful summer holiday sun for the next two months. "A fatal weakness in one whose life has been spent in the pursuit of power," Daniella snarled, "to let peripheral things distract him from the task at hand." Her voice burned in the depths of my fading consciousness and I fell backwards as agony contorted through my spine, but then Daniella's other arm came up behind my shoulders, refusing to allow me to fall, locking me helplessly in place. What was left of my coherent thought reeled in disbelief at the absurdity of a failed test paper being used to kill me; but the lethal sorcery came on relentless. My mind fell downwards towards death.
And then I hit back. Stumbling, fumbling forward in desperation I dragged up an image of my own in defence. A memory not of cold, ruthless ambition, but one of family warmth and my sister's love. I wrapped myself in it like a cocoon, holding on through burning fingers so that the darkness would not take me. I clung onto life desperately, knowing that if I died then my father would be the only male role model that my sister would ever know. I tore up from the depths another memory, one that shone in a brightness undiminished by the eight dark years since its passing. My neighbour's fence had blown down, and I had found my normally good two year old sister playing in their pond, her head only just bobbing above the surface. She had turned giggling to me with her arms raised up, her playful smile dying at the sight of my face. I had lifted her out and dried her off, and before I had even finished my first sentence the tears were pouring down her face. Disciplining my sister so that she would live, breaking my heart to make her cry, because it might save her life. And because my parents would not take proper care of her.
I held on grimly for a time; seconds, hours, years? My mind locked in a desperate battle against agony, the flow of time lost all meaning. And then my shields finally started to crack and burn. I fought on desperately, death closing coldly in, knowing that all I could hope for was just to buy myself more time before the end. Then suddenly I felt the darkness ebb and recede, the pressure on my last defences falling away. The attack had finally run out of power.
Consciousness rushed back. I could see the world around me again, see each blade of glass glinting beautifully in the snow, see each tear staining Daniella's face. I could feel the torn covering of the threadbare seat, the hard plastic of the floor through my shoes, the warmth of Daniella's breath on my face. As I resurfaced our eyes met, and she was wearing a strange expression on her face, almost as though she was sad. But I had been too closely touched by the shadow of death for pity. And in the next round I was the faster, my hand moving even as the green witchfire started to burn once more in her eyes, hitting Daniella's head so hard that her neck jerked like whiplash and with a loud crack she fell backwards and crashed onto the floor. I hoped savagely that the shattering vertebrae had severed her spinal cord. She twitched spasmodically on the floor, then finally lay still.
I felt a light headed rush of relief. And then suddenly the adrenalin was gone. I slumped back against the bus chair, gasping. The most of the intense pain had died away but my body now ached all over. I was breathing raggedly, hoarse uncontrolled breaths pulling air deep down my burning throat. I moved my head slowly, careful not to trigger off a fresh burst of pain. I did not know what to expect when I looked back at Daniella's body, but certainly not that it had disappeared. I scanned the bus desperately, my eyes searching frantically for her. But she was gone, vanished as if into the air; like everything else about her that was impossible. The bus had not stopped since I last saw her, and while it was relatively full it only had one deck and that was not crammed enough to enable a body to be concealed. But no matter how many times logic told me this, the fact remained, Daniella was still no longer there.
"What you fuckin playin at mate?" someone cut in aggressively. Around me I noticed that the passengers were all looking at me strangely, and that those with young children were turning their curious faces away from me. I caught the eye of the speaker, an overweight skinhead somewhere between his late twenties and early thirties.
"Nothing," I answered clearly, wondering desperately just how much the other passengers had seen. "I just felt a little ill. We all feel rough on a Saturday morning sometimes."
The fact that I was able to answer coherently defused the situation, and although I still got some funny looks, the bus gradually settled back down into something approaching its usual routine. Part of me thought that there was something very strange about this, but in my confused whirl of light headed thoughts I couldn't quite work out what was wrong. I only knew that I was desperate for the bus to draw up outside Elmsford railway station so that some sort of normality could resume. As soon as we pulled into the right street I almost ran to the front of the bus, meaning that I got there almost half a minute before it drew up at the stop. In the last uncomfortable seconds before we stopped I turned round to give the bus one final glance.
And Daniella was there, leaning back lazily on the same chair on which she'd died, not the slightest trace of any damage to her neck. She smiled at me, looking more beautiful than ever. Warmth and hellfire danced together in her eyes. I stared back, part of me wanting to go back to her arms, part of me desperate to see her dead. I swayed a little as the bus finally jerked to a halt. I spoke quietly out of the corner of my mouth to the driver, my eyes never leaving Daniella's, ice cold brown locked against pure green witchfire. "Who is that girl?" I asked.
The driver's eyes flicked to check which seat I was staring at, then he turned and looked at me as if I were mad. "There's no fucker there," he almost shouted, "now get the fuckin hell of my bus or I'll set the busies on you."
I gave him a brief nod and stepped down onto the edge of the road. No one followed me although it must have been a main stop on the route. As the doors closed behind and the bus pulled violently away from the curb I felt a sharp flash of relief, Daniella wasn't following me. The cuts on my hand were stinging sharply, fresh blood still seeping through the congealing scabs. I stepped up to the nearest man waiting at the stop, careless of the smell of alcohol rising from his breath, the question leaping from my lips before I had even put both feet on the pavement.
"You don't know what 'Busies' is short for do you?"
For a second I didn't think I'd get a reply, but then he seemed to decide it was easiest just to answer.
"Cops," he snapped quickly.
"Thanks," I replied, walking quickly into Elmsford railway station.
"What the fuck you asking for?" he spat back at me.
"Only that I hate not understanding things," I said softly, with one last look towards where the bus had just passed out of view.