The click of the lock echoed through the silent hallway. Rachel paused on the doormat and peered into the darkness, not entirely sure she was in the right house. It was only the second time that week she had returned home sober. The stairway didn’t look right when it wasn’t spinning around her mockingly or rushing to meet her stumbling body, and the house certainly didn’t feel like home without arguments screeching through the walls.
The unexpected silence put her instantly on edge. Autumn’s fresh breeze bit at the back of her neck as she hovered in the warmth of the open door, waiting for any sign of life that would assure her the family hadn’t killed each other in her absence. Eventually a muffled voice drifted towards her and she recognised the orange glow escape from beneath the living room door.
Comforted by the voice of a stranger, Rachel pushed the door shut quietly and followed the muffled sounds of the television. Her fingers paused as they reached the door handle, brushing the metal lightly. As a child she often hovered on this spot every time she couldn’t sleep, as equally scared of the darkness creeping up behind her as walking in on another of her parent’s arguments. Preferring to linger in the possibility of a happy family scene, she’d stood behind the closed door for what felt like hours some nights.
Sick of the past, Rachel grasped the handle firmly and walked into the warm living room.
“Where’s mum?” she asked her sister.
“Bed.” Bex replied without turning her head from the TV, her eyes reflecting the flickering images on the screen.
Rachel sighed, understanding the house’s silence instantly. Bex flicked her eyes towards Rachel’s and the same knowing look reflected back at them both. It had taken them years to realise their mother’s flu attacked her on the same day each year. Every time she told her daughters that they would have to take themselves to school, they would give each other a knowing glance. As children they grasped the opportunity to spend the day playing truth and dare in the park, eating sweets and learning to smoke. Yet as they got older their mother’s depression pressed down at them more, both resenting having to mourn a man who had abandoned them as children.
Bex turned her head back to the screen before Rachel could acknowledge the moment and smile. As she lost the brief contact with her sister, she realised with a shock that it was the first time they had looked at each other without venom in their eyes in months. One brief moment remembering they were sisters and the sixteen year old had disappeared again, staring blankly into nothingness.
One lamp attempted to illuminate the room and Rachel looked down to find Megan sprawled beneath its warm glow, surrounded by a field of colouring pencils and felt tips whose pen lids were making a break for freedom across the carpet.
“Hey Megs,” Rachel greeted as she tiptoed her way across the obstacle course, “shouldn’t you be in bed?”
Megan smiled up at her with a well practised innocence that Rachel didn’t buy for a second. Returning the look, the two engaged in a silent battle of wills, each analysing how much energy the other had for the nightly battle of bedtime. Rachel glanced at Bex lounged on the sofa immersed in a what was no doubt a highly inappropriate show for a nine year old and knew that she would get no help from her.
Knowing the bags under her eyes had already given her away, Rachel flung her work bag down and sunk gratefully to the floor, far too tired to drag the girl upstairs if she threw a tantrum. Megan smiled triumphantly as Rachel gave in. Deciding that it was a reward for Megan’s sharpness and not because she was too tired to play mum for the evening, Rachel let her get away with it.
“What are you doing?” she asked as Megan rewarded herself with another bright pencil and continued scribbling on the paper. She paused her colouring long enough pass over a large bundle of drawings to her sister.
“It’s a jungle,” the girl chattered happily, “there’s a tiger and a giraffe and all my favourite animals.
“And what’s this one by the river?” She asked, lowering the paper so Megan could shuffle closer and poke her nose over the edge.
“That’s a crocodile.”
“And in it’s mouth?”
“A hamster,” Megan replied happily and Rachel’s eyebrows rose in amusement.
“You sure that giraffes live in jungles… or hamsters?” She asked, peering closer at the unfortunate rodent trapped behind the crocodile’s jaws in an artistic scribble of red crayon.
“That’s why it’s getting eat,” Megan explained seriously as she turned back to her current creation.
Rachel nodded seriously at the artist’s frown and struggled to hide her smile. While messy, each animal was recognisable. She hadn’t managed to get all the colours in between the lines but she had made up for it with her imagination. Megan was certainly more creative than Rachel had ever been.
“You know, these are pretty cool.”
A small smile was just visible between the soft ginger curls that fell across Megan’s face as she bent over her drawing, squinting at the colours flowering on Colin’s white printer paper.
As she peered down at her sister Rachel suddenly saw her as a teenager acing her exams, maybe even going to college. Surely she wouldn’t have any trouble finding friends if she was at the top of her art class. She could see her strolling into the canteen with a gaggle of classmates, red hair in a scruffy bun, paint on her fingers, probably with large glasses too if Megan’s continued squinting was any indication. Rachel tried to ignore how much an eyesight problem could cost them and tried to focus on the image. Megan started humming under her breath, utterly absorbed in her work. She was already everything Rachel hadn’t aspired to be.
The idea for the perfect Christmas present popped into Rachel’s head. Their mum had bought her a colouring book for her birthday earlier in the year but Megan liked to draw her own pictures and so had hardly touched it, much to her mum’s irritation. Rachel would buy her a blank sketch book, a really posh one that artists used. She’d like that.
Rachel smiled and turned the next page, soaking in the nine year old’s colourful optimism when a smudge of black caught her attention. It was a man, one that she had just seen. Frowning, she glanced back at the previous page, searching the jungle for the black figure she’d assumed was another animal. It took her a while to find him as if he were playing hide and seek with her, running to a new position every time her eyes flicked across the page. She found him hiding between the trees, a smear of darkness amongst the magical creatures and bright optimism.
Flicking through more drawings, she found one in which their dysfunctional family had been dragged together in a semblance of a happy scene. Rachel recognised herself as the tallest stick figure dressed in yellow stood beside her sisters and mother. She winced as she saw a purple Bex with a little stick figure in her stomach and made a mental note to hide the drawing before Megan left for school in the morning. The last thing they needed was Megan being dragged to a family therapist by her teacher. Yet there, next to the women, was the same dark man again.
“Megan,” Rachel asked carefully, “is this Colin?”
She stared at the black figure on the page, so unlike the rest of the family, not knowing if either answer would make her feel better. Megan dragged her eyes away from the paper with a frustrated sigh. A smile immediately replaced her frown as she glimpsed her drawing and Rachel knew it couldn’t be the girl’s father. She shook her head and returned to her drawing, the smile remaining on her lips.
Rachel felt her eyes being dragged back to the expressionless face. Filled entirely with black crayon, he didn’t have his own colourful outfit or features at all. Only his shape defined him as a man as he intruded on their family scene.
Rachel analysed her little sister. She’d not considered how much the constant arguments might effect Megan. When she was younger, Rachel had embraced the bitter anger of her parents, using it to fuel her own. Yet Megan wasn’t like her, she was quieter, fragile. She seemed happy now, content to sit alone with her drawings, but maybe she wasn’t. Rachel tried to recall the last time she had seen the girl play outside or go round to a friend’s house but realised that she simply wasn’t in the house enough to know.
Her hands flicked impatiently through the remaining drawings, finding the mystery man in each one. His darkness isolated him instantly in the gleaming polar expanse but she had to search hard for him in other scenes as he blended into backgrounds or hid behind scenery. Yet in every scene she found him, on every page that Megan had touched, never engaging with what was going on around him but always present, always watching.
Horror started to infected the fingers that flicked through the drawings faster and faster before creeping up her arms and into her chest. The man never gained any features in his journey across Megan’s magical creations, remaining nothing but a blank silhouette who haunted every page.
“Megan, who is this?” Rachel tried to ask casually.
Not bothering to look up this time, Megan smiled brightly, knowing instinctively who Rachel was talking about, “That’s my monster.”
The horror stopped playing with her stomach, jumping instead straight to her throat in an attempt to claw it’s way out.
“A monster?” She made herself ask.
“Why did you draw a monster with all these nice things?”
“He’s not a bad monster,” Megan replied with exasperation, “he’s my friend.”
Rachel didn’t know what to do. The man didn’t look very friendly to Rachel. Despite not having eyes, she’d felt him stare into her from every jungle, every supermarket and pirate ship he inhabited. She could almost hear the voice in her head commanding her to leave, as if her sticky fingers were dirtying the magic.
Grasping the pages in her sweaty hands, she pulled them to her chest in an attempt to make him stop staring at her. She wasn’t a psychologist, the most experience she had with things like this was falling asleep in Health and Social Care, yet even Rachel knew that something was wrong.
“Is he real?” Rachel eventually asked, struggling to find the right words to discover the man’s identity. Megan said nothing and Rachel held her breath, desperately hoping he was an imaginary friend, despite what that would reveal about the little girl’s anxiety. The other option was too terrifying to consider. If he wasn’t Colin…
“I mean,” Rachel continued hastily as Megan’s forehead wrinkled, “Is your monster an imaginary, a make-believe friend?”
“No,” she replied slowly with a frown, “but he’s not like us.”
Rachel shot a panicked look to Bex but the teenager was still consumed by the flickering images, oblivious to the revelations that Rachel was making.
“I mean he talks to me,” Megan continued with a shrug, stretching forward to reach an escaping felt tip. Horrific possibilities flashed through Rachel’s imagination. He couldn’t be real.
“Where does he talk to you Meg?”
Rachel didn’t think she was going to get a reply as the girl had already stuck her tongue out of the corner of her mouth in concentration.
“By the wall.” She mumbled eventually before pulling another blank sheet from the pile and thrusting it at Rachel, “Here. You can do one too.”
Rachel took it without looking but the girl didn’t notice, already consumed with her next creation.
“Hey Megs,” Rachel forced her dry throat to stutter, “Can I keep this one?”
Megan looked up in one final glance of irritation at the family picture Rachel had chosen. She frowned, clearly not wanting to give up her masterpiece but Rachel smiled enthusiastically in return.
“All right,” the nine year old grumbled.
Rachel turned to place it on the coffee table but paused, wondering what Colin would do if he found it. He didn’t involve himself much in Megan’s life but he was still her father. He might object if he presumed the girl was portraying him as a vacant scribble of darkness. Deciding to hide it instead, Rachel stretched out on her stomach by Megan, using the motion to slip the sheet under the sofa. She would come back for it once Megan was asleep.
“Don’t you think it’s time for bed Megan? You got school in the morning.”
Megan pretended not to hear her by pulling her face closer to the sheet. Rachel tried to push away her anxiety as she mentally prepared herself for the Bed Time Argument. She didn’t seem disturbed, right now she seemed like any other mischievous child determined not to go to bed. Megan knew what was coming and twisted her head in the other direction as if avoiding eye contact would prevent the command. It almost did as a smile tried to creep into Rachel’s best Mum Voice.
“Megan…” she began just as a screech of tires interrupted her.
Shamelessly using the distraction to avoid the argument for another minute, Rachel pulled herself up and crossed the room to poke her head out of the curtains. A car pulled into their driveway and her stomach flipped for the second time that evening as she realised the driver wasn’t alone.
“Megan, go to bed now.” She commanded, dropping the curtain as if it burned her and strode back across the room.
Megan sat up and opened her mouth to argue, the well-rehearsed tears starting to form.
“Megan, now!” Rachel shouted, much to Bex’s irritation who reached for the remote control.
There was a heavy thunk at the door and masculine laughter penetrated into the hall beyond. A key scraped against the keyhole, missing its target and scratching the metal. Megan’s eyes widened in realisation as she heard the noise. Scrambling to pick up all her drawings, she shot upstairs before Rachel had to say another word.
“What?” Bex huffed, turning down the telly.
Not having the time to feel relieved at winning the argument before it had started, Rachel followed Megan’s footsteps, running to pick up the remaining pens from the floor.
“Colin’s home,” she answered quickly, “And he brought them idiot drunks with him.”
Rachel watched Bex with dismay as excitement animated her sister’s face. Punching the remote, the television snapped the room into further darkness and she ran to the downstairs toilet, shutting the door just as the key finally hit its target. The front door swung open and slammed into the wall.
Cursing filled the small hallway as she heard Colin stumble after the door into the wall, much to the amusement of the men who followed him into the cramped house. Rachel shoved the pens into the closest draw and ran into the hallway, hoping to be up the stairs before he noticed her.
“Look who it is,” he called out before she had even reached halfway, “Where d’you think you’re going?”
A voice in her head urged her to keep going, running until she reached her bedroom, but she knew as well as Colin did that she was never going to listen to that part of herself. Pausing on the step, the Rachel that was desperate for a fight turned slowly on the spot to look down at her stepfather with contempt.
“I’m going bed. I’ve been at work all day.”
Laughter spurted from Colin’s mouth and he stumbled towards the foot of the stairs.
“Yeah right,” he scoffed, “You? Doing some actual work? Get down here.”
Hate sparked Rachel’s veins into a fire at his casual order but she obliged, stepping down calmly onto the first step.
“I said come here,” he repeated without moving out of the way. The men behind him continued to sway in the hallway but said nothing as Rachel descended the final step to stand before him. Colin shifted his weight, his presence somehow trapping her against the wall without needing to touch her. She felt the grimy gaze of the five men fondle her as she pressed her body into the wall.
“What do you want?”
“Don’t speak to me like that ya lazy cow,” he snapped, “We’ve been working hard all day to feed you freeloaders.”
The laughter behind him only stroked his ego and he pulled himself up taller, his hot breath grazing her cheek. “But since you’ve been working so hard all day, you’ll be well practised to get us something to drink won’t you.”
Rachel couldn’t stop the disbelieving laugh that pushed its way from her throat, “You’re joking right? I ain’t getting you nothing.”
Colin grabbed her arm as she turned to walk back up the stairs.
“Get off!” she growled, her anger suppressed by her need not to disturb her mother.
As she fell into Colin she recognised the anger scarring his face that must have mirrored her own. Each time he came home drunk they danced this scene, both pushing the other, waiting, hoping for them to crack first. It was the first time he had grabbed her though and the masculine laughter fell silent instantly as he dragged her through the gaggle of men. Her feet scrambled to keep her upright as she was forced back through the living room towards the kitchen.
When her trainers squeaked on the plastic linoleum Colin thrust her towards the fridge. She spun on the spot as soon as she found her balance, forcing him away from her with a mouthful of expletives. Flames roared through her blood now at the shock, scorching her skin with rage to hide her humiliation.
“Well?” He spat at her, gesturing towards the fridge.
“Let me go.” She demanded, the words slow and dangerous, utterly relieved when her voice didn’t break. She’d always recognise the rage inside him, but had never seen it so focused before, and it was focused on her now.
“Ah let her go Colin,” a man snickered nervously, “We know where they are.”
The younger man headed for the fridge when Colin thrust his hand out towards him threateningly, “Stay where you damn well are.”
He stopped. The jovial atmosphere surrounding the men had snapped completely in the last few seconds. No one spoke. Colin stepped closer to Rachel and brought his face close to hers. She forced herself not to back away.
“Just look how thirsty Lee is Rach. Why don’t you get the man a drink huh?”
She felt the gaze of everyone in the room on her, sympathetic or amused in turn yet their silence continued. Lee didn’t try to help her again, knowing his lanky frame was no match for Colin’s bulk. Curling her hand into a sweaty fist beside her, she held her ground. Let them watch, she told herself, waiting for the shift in balance that would announce Colin’s attack. She didn’t need them to help her.
The seconds ticked on. A man she vaguely recognised as one of her stepfather’s closest friends stepped closer to Colin, firmly blocking her escape route with a smirk. The room was suffocating with silence, no one having seen Colin go this far so quickly before, no one knowing what to say to ease the tension. Rachel couldn’t bare the wait any longer, she almost attacked him herself, desperate for something to happen, desperate to release the hate scorching her insides.
Silence snapped with an innocent clicking of the toilet door. Oblivious to the tension in the room, Bex rescued her elder sister by sauntering passed the men surrounding Rachel and into the kitchen.
“Oh, hey Colin. Didn’t hear you come back.” She greeted with a failed attempt at nonchalance as she hopped onto the counter.
The irritation on Colin’s face would have entertained Rachel considerably if she hadn’t been convinced that the man had been seconds away from punching her.
“Hey Lee.” Bex greeted the highly uncomfortable man, looking up at him with wide eyes and freshly applied mascara.
Colin stepped away from Rachel quickly, but remained close enough for her to recognise her continued danger.
“Bex, go to bed.” She ordered without taking her eyes off her stepfather. She could sense a new anger radiate towards her without having to look at Bex’s disbelieving expression.
“Erm, I’ll go to bed when I’m tired thanks.” She heard her scoff at the others, brushing off the childish implication quickly.
Rachel pursed her lips and hovered on the spot. She should use the break in tension to get away from Colin but wasn’t about to leave the sixteen year old in her place.
“Bex, get out of here. You got school in the morning remember.”
“Shut up,” the girl snapped.
Colin smirked at Rachel before flicking his eyes briefly towards her sister, “Yeah stay Bex. Rachel here was just about to get us a drink. And maybe a little something to eat too.” The eyes snapped back to hers, “We’re hungry.”
Someone snickered, no doubt at the reaction on Rachel’s face as she glared into Colin’s smirking one.
“I told you, I ain’t getting you nothing.”
Before Colin could retort they heard Bex flop off the counter, her slippers slapping against the floor.
“I’ll cook you something,” she announced eagerly.
Rachel watched the triumphant look flick between Colin and one of the men. She’d heard them joke the last time they came round about the willing young teenager who would do almost anything to get the attention of her stepfather. She wouldn’t let the fool cook the ape’s dinner too. Dragging her eyes from Colin’s, she snapped at Bex over her shoulder, feeling his burning gaze just as sharply on the back of her neck.
“Bex, I’m only thinking of you. You don’t want to wear yourself out before the the little one’s even born eh?”
The colour drained from Bex’s face as she stared open mouthed at her sister. Guilt avenged the girl immediately as Rachel watched the mortified tears materialise in her sister’s eyes. She knew Bex wouldn’t forgive her but her words had the desired effect.
“She ain’t pregnant!” Someone exclaimed, erupting into laughter.
Colour quickly replaced Bex’s momentary whiteness as humiliation tinged her skin pink.
“Jesus, Bex!” Lee stuttered, unintentionally taking a step away from her.
Broken hearted at Lee’s instant disgust, Bex escaped the room in tears, sprinting up the stairs to a chorus of whooping. They heard a door slam moments later. Rachel watched her go with regret but her concern was replaced immediately as she turned back to face Colin’s own humiliation. His red face flushed darker as his friends roared. She’d never considered that his pride would be affected by the actions of the stepdaughters he didn’t care about.
This time Rachel did step back, knowing instantly from the darkness in Colin’s eyes that their world of constant pushing, taunting and provoking was about to shift somewhere far more dangerous. She didn’t recognise his expression anymore, calm hate vanquished by a wild fury that transformed his face into a snarl. The fight left her body and the fire froze rapidly into fear.
“That was rude,” he whispered so only she could hear him, “This is my house you brat and you’re going to learn to behave if you want to stay under my roof.”
He lunged towards her. Rachel screamed as she dived out of the way, utterly grateful for the alcohol dulling his reactions as he stumbled into the counter top heavily. Slamming her way through the bewildered wall of men, she didn’t waste time in checking whether anyone would stop Colin, instead flinging herself up the stairs as soon as she neared them. By the time she had reached the top, Colin was already crashing through the living room.
Pausing only the check Megan’s door was closed, she dived into her bedroom as Colin thundered up the stairs after her. Slamming the door shut, she slid the bolt across just in time as Colin’s bulk slammed into the other side. Another scream escaped her mouth but the door held.
With nowhere else to run, Rachel backed away from the rage hammering against the thin wood. Dust fluttered down from the door jam as Colin slammed his fists against the door, not understanding how it was locked. Unbidden, her hands flung to her mouth, trying to contain the terror that was consuming her so suddenly. Stevo’s lock was secure but Rachel realised with horror that it was stronger than the door itself. The bolt held the enraged man back stubbornly but the hinges on the other side weren’t nearly as motivated.
Colin sucked in a breath and the sudden pause in his hollering allowed her to hear the front door slam close one last time. They’d left him with them like this. They’d actually left her. She turned to look for something, anything to hold him off when she realised with a shudder that her phone was still downstairs in her work bag. The new lock only enraged the man further and his attack increased in a frenzy and oh God, they’d left her.
She gripped her mouth tightly, unable to move or prepare herself for the storm that was about to descend.
Then, “What the hell is all the noise for?”
Mum. Her Mum.
Colin stopped hammering long enough to scream at his wife about her skank of a daughter. To Rachel’s utter relief, her mother didn’t demand her to unlock the door. Instead, the voice dropped. In the sudden quiet, Rachel dared herself to step closer. Eyes fixed on the flimsy hinges, she listened intently as her mother mumbled a criticism of her husband’s state.
“Oh just shut up,” Colin screamed back, “Just go back to your room and cry about your scummy ex. You know what, I don’t blame him! Who wouldn’t leave a bitch like you and all your brats!?”
Her mother disappeared behind another slammed door. Rachel waited for Colin’s anger to target her again but the silence continued.
A moment passed and then his voice was transformed, “Baby, come back. Baby, I’m sorry.”
Rachel listened to Colin knock gently on the other door with desperate relief. Moments later she heard him walk into the room and the door clicked behind him, abandoning Rachel to a sudden, screaming silence.
She collapsed onto the bed, her head dropped into shaking hands, willing the tears not to escape. She wouldn’t cry for him. Taking a shuddering breath, she looked up and only then noticed the blackness of her room. She sat without moving towards the light switch and breathed deeply.
She owed Stevo a pint.