The Simple Things - - BEDTIME STORY - A short story by CATRI­ONA WARD

Be­ing alone at night is not the worst thing. The worst thing is the sud­den knowl­edge that you are not alone. Some­one breathes by my ear. He wears white.

I start awake to a se­ries of short, high beeps, like a lorry re­vers­ing. Then it stops. The house is full of its slight, fa­mil­iar night noise. The floor­boards sigh to one an­other, re­leas­ing the heat of the day. From the at­tic comes a sound like hand­fuls of gravel land­ing on the ceil­ing. Old houses are never free of mice.

The beep­ing re­sumes. It has a nasal, pierc­ing qual­ity. I climb out of bed, pro­tect­ing my in­jured arm. The bat­ter­ies in the smoke alarm must have run down again.

I fetch the steplad­der and find new bat­ter­ies (in the knife drawer. Why?). The packet half torn open, neon pink price sticker peel­ing away. They’re the last ones. I hope they still work. I throw the packet in the bin.

When I’ve fin­ished screw­ing the cover back onto the smoke alarm, night is run­ning out and there’s pink through the win­dow to the east. I sit at the kitchen ta­ble. I must get dif­fer­ent stuff to clean the floor. This is too strong. Ev­ery­thing smells of dis­in­fec­tant.

I eat ap­ple pie from the fridge, han­dling the fork awk­wardly with one hand. It is com­fort­ing. The sugar, the tart­ness, the pas­try. I make a good ap­ple pie, Robert al­ways says so. I put the empty dish in the sink.

The ac­ci­dent un­spools across my mind. The grey road, the plo­sive strike of rain on the wind­shield. The lorry, sud­denly at our side, then in us, some­how. Ev­ery­thing went slow. Robert’s hand on mine. Mary. I heard him, even above the scream of metal and tyres. I was so afraid, not just for me but for him. Hor­ri­ble, the chasms of fear that love opens up in you.

The dawn-lit kitchen is filled with bird­song. I open the gar­den door. Sun falls in, the scent of cut mead­ows and hon­ey­suckle. I should go out. The grass would be dewy un­der my bare feet.

Some­thing brushes my el­bow. I turn and glimpse a fig­ure in white flut­ter­ing cloth. It dis­ap­pears down the cel­lar stairs. My heart pounds. I find a torch (in the china cab­i­net. Why?) and fol­low. The sweep­ing beam of light shows noth­ing but the de­tri­tus of fam­ily life in piles against the walls. Old board games, gar­den­ing tools. No white fig­ure.

From up­stairs, a sharp beep­ing. Those bat­ter­ies must have been dead, after all. I curse and go up.

I check the cut­lery drawer, just in case. There is a packet of bat­ter­ies, half torn open, pink price la­bel peel­ing away. I don’t un­der­stand. I check the bin. It’s empty. So is the sink. No empty pie dish. I go to the fridge. The ap­ple pie is there, whole and invit­ing. “What is hap­pen­ing?” I whis­per. Time shud­ders. I am in an­other place. Some­thing is wrong with my body. It will not move. Robert’s hand is on mine, ma­chines beep, and ev­ery­where is the scent of dis­in­fec­tant. “Mary,” Robert says. “Come back to us. Please try. I know you’re in there.”

Some­one breathes by my ear. He lifts my eye­lid. He wears white. I’m sorry, the doc­tor says to Robert.

Warm early sun falls into the kitchen, the scent of hon­ey­suckle fills the air. The light in the door­way grows brighter, blazes up. I can’t see Robert but I feel his sad­ness. “It’s all right dar­ling,” I say. “Shh. I’m just go­ing into the gar­den. It’s a beau­ti­ful day. Back in a bit.”

Catri­ona Ward lives in Lon­don and Devon. Her de­but novel, Raw­blood, won Best Hor­ror Novel at the 2016 Bri­tish Fan­tasy Awards; her equally chill­ing new novel, Lit­tle Eve (Wei­den­feld & Nicol­son), is about war, win­ter and se­crets. Her Sim­ple Plea­sure is “hold­ing my new­born nephew’s hand”.

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