In spite of the house
In spite of herself
In spite of the spitting, chattering rain against the thin black ugly window pane
It was strangely soothing
Strangely calming . . .
Until a sharp
Smacked her furiously awake!
Just went down to tea and there was this tree in the dining room.
Not a normal Christmas tree. A big branch with little branches.
And these weird little dolls hanging on it - me, Tom, Maggie, Mum and Dad!
Dad said Nan must’ve made them. Freaked me out!
Miles away from the cold dark house
blanketed by her phone’s forest soundscape
the gentle leaf-shivers
the calming calls of night birds
the angry crackle of hot orange fingers clawing up dead dark bark into the black moonless sky . .
Mum didn’t listen because Tom and Maggie were fighting again
Dad didn’t listen because he never listened
So she took the calendar downstairs to the big fire and threw it in
And as the yellow claws tore it apart she was calm for the first time since they arrived
Sophie lay still, eyes screwed shut.
Even though she’d seen it crumple and crumble to black in the flames, she was terrified the calendar would be there right in front of her.
A new window open.
A new horror grinning at her . . .
Knuckles white as the sheet drawn to her chin, Sophie forced herself to open her eyes.
And . . .
It wasn’t there.
It wasn’t there!!
Her hot, damp head fell back onto the pillow and she laughed
Until she heard the screams
It made her feel uneasy but she didn’t know why.
Maybe it was the charred, dead bark.
Maybe the way it seemed to claw angrily at the icy sky.
Or maybe because it would be the last place she ever saw her little brother . . .
Tom’s doing my head in!
Ever since Mum told him if he fights with Maggie Santa won’t bring him anything on Christmas Day all he does is pester me!
So I challenged him to see how fast he can run down to that old tree and back.
20 minutes and counting . .
Nan never joined them in the dining room. Sophie assumed she must eat in her bedroom.
If she ate at all.
“Where’s Tom?” asked Mum.
Standing by the tree
“What are you doing here?!” yelled Sophie, flashing her phone-light frantically into his small round face
“Hide and seek!” he smiled “Do you want to play?”
“What? It’s freezing out here! And dark!”
“Yes” he said “Do you want to play?”
She closed her eyes
‘Got you!’ she cried
But she hadn’t got him
He wasn’t there
He wasn’t by the tree
He wasn’t by the brook
He wasn’t by the burnt-out car
‘Ok I give up, where are you?’
‘Tom, I give up’
‘I said I give up!’
Sophie opened her eyes.
Where was she?
Her face was wet and sticky.
Her arm was numb and heavy.
She tried to move it but there was something lying on it.
No, someone . . .
Sophie turned her face into a mop of red ringlets.
“I ,er, don’t know,” she frowned, slowly blinking herself awake. “I guess they’re still out looking for Tom.”
“Oh,” said Maggie, sucking her lip thoughtfully . . .
Sophie jabbed frantically at her phone but she couldn’t find a picture of her brother anywhere.
“Wait,” she said, dragging her parents through to the dining room and pointing at the dolls hanging grimly on Nan’s ugly Christmas tree.
“There, look! You, me, Maggie and . .”
“No,” cried Sophie. “NO!!!”
She fell to her knees, scrambling and scratching before finally crumpling onto the cold, dark boards.
Tom was gone
Hope you get this text
I tried calling you but the signal wasn’t strong enough
Things are so horrrible here
Tom’s disappeared and no one seems to care except me
I know it sounds crazy but I think this stupid calendar’s got something to do with it
Zoe I’m scared
Then she stopped.
“Oh thank God” she breathed into the ice air.
There, under the tree stood a small still figure wearing her sister’s red hat.
She stepped forward slowly to see a glittering white face and frozen body.
She reached out to touch her cheek.
It was soft.
It was cold.
A sudden fury curled Sophie’s fingers and she smacked the white face with her fist.
The snow girl crumbled and sank to the ground.
Then they were here.
How long ago was that?
It felt like 18 years.
Sophie knew each one intimately.
Every knot hole, every creak.
“OK this time!” she said to herself.
She took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
Then, as she turned to go down for the final time, she heard it open.
Dad told me never to go up again. You know how teachery he is even when he’s not in school!
Anyway hope you’re alright and not still mad at me - I was only jealous. Don’t know why I thought it was Darren’s, don’t care whose it is as long as you’re both ok.
Why wasn’t she in school?
Why wasn’t Dad in school?
They’d been here three weeks but the Christmas holidays only began today.
Why were her parents constantly arguing?
And why hadn’t Zoe replied to any of her texts?
Sophie felt a choking fear begin to clutch at her chest.
Where had they got to?
Biting white flakes scratched the darkening window pane pressed against her cold pink nose . .
Suddenly the door flew open.
I’m coming to get you
And the tune woke
It led her down
Past sombre, solemn fireplace
And lonely dangling doll
Into the frozen winterwhite
And further down
To the big bare burnt tree
And Sophie stood
Until . . .
Hope you’re ok.
Sorry about before. Can’t believe I got suspended for hitting my BFF!
Now we’re off to spend Xmas in the middle of nowhere at Nan’s house!
Journey’s a nightmare - Tom and Maggie keep fighting and Mum and Dad haven’t stopped arguing since we set off!
Now she’s saying he’s having an affair!
One of his pupils! AND he’s got her pregnant!
Seriously, can you see anyone our age fancying Dad?
Now he’s saying it’s sorted.
Don’t know what that means.
OK text you when we get there.
Sophie pressed send.
And heard a tune . . .
Coming from behind
From the boot
Sophie felt cold and sick
Then a sudden sharp fury flooded her body and she was flailing at her father, hammering the back of his head with her fists.
“WHAT DID YOU DO?
WHAT DID YOU DO TO ZOE???”
Barely grips the wheel
Hot crimson splash across the windscreen
A grubby brown wing flaps madly against the glass
A dumb bird dies a dumb death
And the wheel sharply spins . . .