The Day She Died
by Susan Scofield and Richard Wright
The cottage was pretty, behatted in thatch and draped in heavy robes of vibrant creeping ivy. The mat at the foot of the door told him that he was welcome, and everything about the isolated little home cried out that this was true. Even the solitary ceramic gnome, peeking from the spray of bright flowers bordering the path to the door, seemed pleased to see him.
The sun was falling, casting golden light and shadows all around. It was much later in the day than he had planned to arrive, but a puncture on the winding roads between the cottage and the nearest town had been the cause of unplanned delays. He was not a man of practical application, and had waited with fading patience for the arrival of the man in the van who can. The man who could did, in less than ten minutes, leaving him with a gnawing sense of inadequacy.
Now there was no time to waste, not if he wanted to get back to his hotel in time to enjoy his evening. He brushed down the front of his suit, checked the shine on his shoes, and placed his briefcase on the mat beside his feet. When he was certain that he had aligned it to a crisp and perfect ninety-degree angle from the door, he knocked once.
As he drew his hand back, the door opened and the woman beamed up at him. She must have heard him approach, and been waiting behind the wood for him to announce himself. He did not like that at all. It was disconcerting.
Hiding his annoyance, he gave a thin smile. “Good afternoon. I believe you’re expecting me? My apologies for the late hour, but I had a little trouble on the…”
Her eyes were a remarkable green, like the shallows of a tropical sea awaiting a storm. The observation stunned him, because he had never seen a tropical sea. It was one of many things on a bucket list that he knew he would never begin to work through. She wore her blonde hair in pigtails, and her unrestrained smile showed shining white teeth. To his disappointment she did not appear to be insane.
That was going to make his job a little more difficult. Although his assessment was supposed to be objective and unbiased, he knew there was a considerable bonus to be had if he found this woman to be a danger to herself or others. Somebody somewhere wanted her out of this picturesque little property, and he had his eye on a new coffee machine for his kitchen that the extra funds would more than cover. He enjoyed coffee a great deal.
“I’ve never seen a tropical sea,” he said, even though he had intended to properly introduce himself.
“No,” said the woman. “That’s because you haven’t been born yet.” It was exactly the sort of statement that would help his case, but in light of his own unusual opening gambit he wasn’t certain he could make much use of it. Going forward he would ensure he said only bland and neutral things, so that he could not be later accused of leading her responses.
The woman took his hand in her soft, warm fingers. It was a contact he would have recoiled from on any other day, but as she led him into the hallway he found himself enjoying the sensation. Heat and excitement boiled through him. His briefcase remained on the welcome mat, but he wanted to follow her more than he wanted to retrieve it.
Framed black and white photographs hung on the wall of the narrow hallway, none of them entirely straight. One was of a little girl with tears cascading down her cheeks, sitting alone on a bed in a dark room, lit only by the light falling through a crack in the door.
A second showed the palm of a hand, callused and slightly cupped, and it was impossible to tell whether it was moving to strike the camera or held to conceal something from its lens. The detail astonished him, for he could see the frayed edges of the tiny micro-creases through the skin.
Another showed a dog on the road, lying on its side with its eyes closed. While there were no injuries apparent, its position beside the broken painted lines placed a weight beneath his heart that threatened to sink him.
When she let go of his hand he felt a twinge of regret, but with the fading of strange sensations he recovered his purpose somewhat. The pictures on the wall were not much, but when he made his recommendations he would certainly reference them. Whether it was the incongruous angles at which they had been hanged or the subjects themselves, they brought disorder and menace to an otherwise perfectly pleasant summer hallway.
Following her lead as she bounced into the kitchen at the back of the house, he was almost overcome by the rich scent that greeted him. Unable to identify what it came from, certain that he had never smelled its like before, he stopped dead a few steps into the cosy room. The aroma had a texture, which stroked the inside of his nose and mouth with musky sweetness, and piled up heavily behind his eyes.
Suddenly he was very sleepy indeed.
“Here’s your coffee,” she said, passing him a mug. “You should drink it, while you look out of the window.”
There was nothing objectionable about her suggestion, and he found himself leaning next to the sink, staring down into a field behind the house. There was a distant shed, and a fence with flaking white paint on the boards. An old fashioned child’s bicycle with a rich matte green frame was propped against the fence. Though a little scratched, it was for the most part in excellent condition. Only the seat aged it, for tan leather had been shredded and dangled in torn flaps. It looked like a vicious, animalistic wound, as though the bike had been stalked and pounced upon.
The grass on which the bike sat was a stiff, dead brown.
Blinking, he sipped his coffee to clear his head. It was black and bitter, as he liked it, but there was an under-taste that shot childhood fear through his guts. Tequila and cigars, a familiar cocktail. He remembered things he had not thought on for many years. Infant things, and not so infant. Tequila and cigars.
The scene through the window was faded and strange, as though he was looking at it through sepia stained glass. Lowering his mug to the counter, afraid he would tremble and drop it, he tried to blink the scene to more modern life. “What… what is that?”
She moved up behind him, so close he could feel her warmth, and her voice was small and sad. “That was the day I died. I like to keep it handy.” There was a shadow by the shed, that coiled with thick need. Its focus was the bicycle, he was certain, but it made no break to approach it over the grass. That was a good thing. The shadow scared him in ways that he was unable to articulate, even within the comfort of his own head.
“Was it your bicycle?”
“Yes. I died on it. When did you die?”
“I… I didn’t.” He was very tired and very cold, able to manage no more than a whisper. The taste of tequila and cigars banged through his throat every time he swallowed.
“I think you did. I think we all did. There is a moment when you know who you are and what the world is and what you’re going to be, and then there is another in which you discover that you are wrong. It happened to everyone. We all died.”
“Not to me.”
“Then why aren’t you the person you thought you would be?” Fingers rested on his shoulder, brushing the hairs on the back of his neck like a cat’s tongue. “We’re still waiting to be born. Living, learning, waiting for the next moment when we understand it all.” If he turned, he thought he might see her naked, so he stared with renewed intensity at the bike and the shadow. As horrible a statement of things gone by as they were, he was more frightened that she might be exposed now. She contained things he did not want to understand.
“Come to bed,” she said, as the sun touched the horizon. Others may have had the will to resist her, but he could not.
He woke beside her on the bed, still in his grey suit and his shiny black shoes. It was dark, and he could not see her. When she shifted on the mattress he could tell that she was very much larger than she had been earlier. Something soft and fibrous brushed his arm. Flat on his back, he twitched a hand and stroked it.
While he slept she had wrapped herself in living silk and become a chrysalis. He was so envious that he started to cry. Tequila and cigars. How long would he have to wait?
In the morning he woke to an empty bedroom, and understood that he would never see her tropical eyes again. It made him very sad, but happy too. After many years of waiting she wasn’t dead anymore. It would be his turn, someday. The house belonged to him, and he belonged to the house. The view from the kitchen would be different when he went downstairs, and he was nervous about that. It needed to be stared at though. He needed to see the day he died.
The paintings in the hallway had also changed by the time he descended to view them. The scenes were familiar, and made him ache. There was coffee waiting for him on the kitchen counter. He drank it as he looked out of the window, refilling it to the brim with his own tears after every sip.
It tasted of tequila and cigars, and he thought it would do so until the next time he was born.
Susan Scofield is a woman of unusual charm, whose house is full of creatures you would not expect. She takes time away from dayjobbery to photograph things that you do not think are beautiful and show you that they are.
And that’s the third week of this storytelling adventure done. If you enjoyed the story, please pass it around. Also, I don’t yet have enough images with which to do this for a full year. If you have cool pictures that you would like to send along as inspiration for a story, please let me know. Details are here.
All of the stories in this project are free, and will stay here indefinitely. If you want to support my writing in general, or the publishers that I’ve worked with down the years, then buy a book one of the times you swing by. My new novel The Flesh Market is a good place to start with my longer fiction. If short stories are your thing, and you enjoyed ‘The Day She Died’, then you might also like my story ‘Bulimia Daemonica’’ in Anthology II: Inner Demons Out (which also features art from Susan).