Exit Only

She wrenched awake. Blinding sun streamed through a crack in the curtains. The sheets coiled damply and she struggled to escape them. Her mouth stuck to itself and she grimaced and poked her tongue into the crevices in her lips. The smell of bacon hung slack in the air.

‘Hey!’ A voice lifted from the kitchen. ‘Want breakfast?’

She felt her stomach curl and twist, ‘Nah,’ she said. She pulled her clothes on over her sticky skin. ‘Thanks,’ she added, walking past the kitchen door.

The front door slammed behind her, cutting off a question. Another morning, another exit.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts March 2015

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Written for the 100 word flash fiction challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog. Definitely a bit quick and dirty. But fun!

Dust

Eliza sits on a damp stair in the corpse of a genteel Victorian seaside villa. In the distance the sea sounds as if it is taking great gasping breaths of the air, which stinks of mud and fish. Jackdaws squawk and clatter in the broken roof above; a litter of nest material and the tiny bones of dead chicks are scattered across the stairs around her. She is looking at the oak door in front of her which must be the only untainted thing in this town with its brass door knob, still shiny as if it’s regularly used, and a keyhole with an ivory inlaid surround.

She stands up, steps towards the door and strokes the pale wooden panels. It smells of clean wood but that passes and the old stench of the town returns. The door is between floors at the turn in the stair and Eliza turns her back on it to descend.

In the kitchen the brown light leeches through the glassless window, staining the remains of a lace curtain with a tobacco tinge. Eliza pulls at a drawer and, with a crash, it disintegrates into the cupboard below. She sorts through a litter of cutlery and rotten wood hoping to see a key but there is none. The other drawers are empty but for faded lining paper.

The living room only holds a piano which gives out a plunk as she looks in, so she turns to the last doorway off the hall. The door is of a similar type to the locked door except that it is weather stained and rotting like everything else in the town. It lies drunkenly against the wall and Eliza carefully steps around it into the room. Above a writing desk hangs an old sepia photo of a regal looking woman in a high necked blouse. Eliza reaches out with a dirty hand to touch the glass which somehow remains in the frame.

The walls are lined with bookcases and, thinking a key might be hidden in a book, Eliza attempts to pull one from the shelf only to find that they are a sodden mass glued together by mould and damp. The smell of rotting paper and leather catches in her throat and she gags. Abandoning the books she finds the desk drawers are locked but remembers metal skewers in the kitchen and fetches the narrowest she can. She shoves the point into the first lock and wrenches it, grimacing as she feels the delicate mechanism snap. Hurriedly she destroys the other two locks, avoiding the disapproving glare of the woman in the photograph.

In the left hand drawer she finds some coins and a small congealed envelope of paper money. Useless. She rubs her thumb over the faces and letters of the coins. The copper pennies have a tangy scent to them and she puts the coins in her pocket to look at later. The right hand drawer has a packet of letters held together with a ribbon that crumbles when she moves them. They are dry, miraculously. A glance shows her that they are love letters and she shoves them into the drawer and slams it shut.

Pulling open the centre drawer she finds a pad of letter paper, three good pens neatly lined up, and a white key. She picks up the key and examines it closely. Ivory. Or bone maybe. Its surface is smooth as if it has been handled repeatedly.

She goes out to the hall and reverentially steps up the stairs, slowly, one by one. She is holding her breath. The key slips neatly into the lock, turns with a gentle click and the door sways inwards. Eliza steps inside.

The room is so bright that she squeezes her eyes shut before opening them slowly so that they can adjust. This must have been a bathroom; clean white tiles line both the floor and walls. Clear glass in the window lets in clear light through a white lace curtain. Two mirrors on opposite walls reflect each other, and each other, and each other and bones. Neat heaps of bright bleached bones piled against the walls; small delicate bird skulls, thick leg bones of large mammals, nests of rib-cages of all sizes.

The dusty smell catches in Eliza’s throat, she feels as though the moisture and life is being dragged out of her by the desiccated air. She gasps. A sense of disappointment and fear wells up inside her and she cries out and she turns to leave.

The door is smooth and polished and firmly shut. There is no brass door handle on this side and Eliza cries out again, beating on the door with her rough hands. She falls to her knees and puts her eye to the keyhole.

On the stair outside a jackdaw gleefully tears open a fish and eats.

***

Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Cutts

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This is written in response to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. The idea is to roll dice against lists of genres and story elements and then combine them. I rolled:

Genre 1. Southern Gothic. I interpreted ‘southern’ as the English South coast because I’m not American and there is something gothic about our delapidated coastal towns.

Genre 2. Dying Earth.

Story elements: a locked door, a key made of bone. To get the door and the key was very lucky!

If it wasn’t for the fact there’s a deadline I would put this aside for a couple of days before making another run through it, and maybe finding a beta reader but there’s no time for that so here it is.

 

The Morning After

Sheila stood staring at the ruins as rain dripped from the hood of her borrowed cagoule. At her feet the water was mixing with the soot into a blackened mud, dripping and gurgling in a silence in which she could hear the cacophony of the night before. Flashing lights, wailing sirens, crying and the roaring of flames. It had been like some ridiculous television programme she would usually watch curled up with a glass of wine. She poked a nondescript blackened lump with her foot. It turned out to be a book and the pages smeared apart damply, their insides unburnt. A dictionary, nothing romantic. If life were a television programme it would have been something significant. If life were a television programme it would be A Clue, there would be A Moral Purpose and eventually, after fifty minutes there would be Justice.

She glanced back, hearing footsteps behind her. Col hadn’t got his hood up and his hair was plastered to his head. She would usually have teased him; his red cheeks and rain spattered glasses topped off by the flattened hair made her affection for him rise in her throat in a way that would usually have emerged as a laugh. Not today. She held out her hand and he took it, pressing his lips together in the half-smile people give when a burden of sadness must be shared.

‘We won’t be able to recover anything at all, will we?’ she asked. He shook his head.

‘They say it’s not safe to go in and there’ll be nothing worth getting out anyway.’ He looked around at the remains of the garden. ‘Wonder if Horace got out ok? I don’t think he was in the house.’ He called out ‘Horace!’ Horace!’

Sheila watched the rain falling out of a ruined gutter and pooling by the front door in the quiet, a car swished past, slowing to peer at the wreck of the house. To her relief, as the car drove on, there was a reproachful ‘meow’ and an ancient and very wet black cat emerged from the grass with an accusatory look. Col squatted down and the cat purred and butted his knee with its head.

He lifted the cat up, cradling it between his coat and his chest, ‘Come here,’ said Col as a deep purr rumbled out from under the jacket. He tickled the cat under its chin and looked up at Sheila and smiled, a watery smile, pale but with a ray of relief that not everything was lost.

‘Darling,’ she began, and he drew back, sensing a warning in her tone, ‘what are we going to do with him?’

‘I. Well. I don’t know.’ He looked down at the cat.

‘We can’t take him back to Mum’s place can we? And we don’t know when we’ll be sorted out. We may need to rent for a while.’

‘But we can’t chuck him out!’ Col’s voice cracked a little.

‘No, no of course not, but maybe Mrs. Dale…’

‘No! I mean, no. Why?’

‘You know why. And she’s always loved Horace. He spends half his time there already.’

Col sighed ‘I suppose you’re right. I just thought…’ he paused, and the sentence faded away.

‘I know, love.’

He looked down at the cat. ‘Always were a mercenary old thing weren’t you? Making big eyes at Mrs. Dale like we never fed you. Come on you silly animal.’ Sheila followed as he carried the cat round the corner to Mrs. Dale’s place. Her beautiful garden had butted on to theirs and Horace had worked his way into her affections in the way that only a personable cat can, rubbing his face on her knee as she tried to do the weeding and asking to come into her immaculate kitchen from the rain.

Mrs Dale opened the door and with exclamations of surprise, consolation and offers of help she ushered them into the kitchen, bustling to get the kettle on and biscuits out.

‘Well Mrs Dale, there is maybe something you can do for us, at least until we get ourselves sorted.’ Sheila said and Col brought the cat out from under his arm.

‘Oh Horace! The beloved beast. Does he need a foster mum?’

Col nodded. ‘I hope we’ll be able to have him back soon. But we’re going to have a bit of a time of it.’

‘Oh you are aren’t you dear. Of course I’ll look after Horace.’ She smiled at the couple and reached out and patted Sheila’s hand. ‘Of course if you need anything else just ask, this is no trouble, no trouble at all, it will be my pleasure.’

As they walked down Mrs. Dale’s path, Sheila gave Colin’s hand a quick squeeze and he sighed. They didn’t look at the burnt out remains of their modest little home, with the black sooty marks streaming up from each window like grotesque eye make-up. They avoided each other’s eyes and Sheila held her mouth tightly shut against the tears as she climbed into the drivers seat. Colin slid in next to her and briefly laid his hand on her leg and as they moved off, tried desperately to think of something to say, something optimistic or mundane, something not about the immediate future, or insurance policies, nor about past memories, nor about being sad, about Horace or home, he just wanted to say something boring. Something that was nothing, but he couldn’t think of anything so they pulled away in silence and tried not to look at their home.

***
Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Cutts