Authors: Sarah A. Denzil
THE BROKEN ONES
Sarah A. Denzil
THE BROKEN ONES
Sarah A. Denzil
Copyright © 2016 Sarah A. Denzil
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work, in whole or in part, in any form.
This is a work of fiction. All characters, events, organizations and products depicted herein are either a product of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously.
Cover Design by Sarah Dalton
– a gripping psychological thriller
Contact the author
One. Two. Now you. One. Two. Now you.
The garden smells nice. Warm leaves. Warmth underfoot. Sun overhead.
Count the birds.
One. Two. Three. Magpies, all of them. Black, blue, and white. They sound funny—scratchy and coarse—when they sing. I don’t like that sound. It frightens me. Maybe I should go inside? I don’t want to. I want to feel the sunshine on my skin. When I close my eyes, the afterimage of the sun is bright red, like the blood that came out when I scraped my knee last year.
What comes next? What did we do?
I don’t remember what comes next. Why am I forgetting?
“What are you doing out here?”
I tense at the sound of her voice. It’s high-pitched and urgent. That means she’s mad about something. Her footsteps hurry over. Then her cold hand grasps my arm.
“We don’t have time for this. You need to get ready,” she says.
“I don’t want to,” I whisper. I always whisper when I disobey her. It’s the only way I dare to do it.
She yanks me, and I cry out. Her fingernails dig into my skin and tears wet my cheeks.
“I told you not to play out here,” she says. She’s sweating. Her hair has come loose from her hairdo, and the straggles stick to her forehead. Her blouse is stained and unbuttoned at the top. Her eyes are ringed with dark circles, and her lipstick is smudged. But still, she’s terrifying to me. Still, she drags me across the grass. “What are you doing out here, anyway? Who were you talking to?”
I don’t want to say.
“Well?” she insists. Her nails dig harder into my skin.
“The shadow,” I whisper.
She stops. I’m afraid now. Afraid of the silence that follows. She sinks down to my height, and all I can think about are her bloodshot eyes, how frantic they are.
“There is no shadow,” she says. “There never was a shadow. You need to stop this nonsense right now.”
I nod my head. I will. I will stop this nonsense. I promise.
I just want her to love me.
My name is Sophie Howland, and, never—not even for one single moment in my sorry existence—have I ever felt like a whole person. There’s a part of me that’s missing. It’s as though a dog tore away a piece of me shortly after I was born. I got eaten all up, like leftovers.
Now that I’m older, I believe that missing piece might one day be filled in by having a family. You see, I’ve always wanted children. I want, more than anything, to belong to a clan. To have it all: husband… kids… the lot. Mum raised me on her own after Dad died, so I wanted a taste of the normal nuclear life. Perhaps the stars didn’t align for me and it was never part of my destiny. Perhaps, at thirty-five, I will be a late bloomer. Everything will click for me all of a sudden. You hear of that happening to women. They’re usually rich or famous women over forty, settling down after a glittering career, able to afford a surrogate, not a primary school teacher living with her mother in a small English town.
Despite my not finding a husband, you could say that I have the child. I have a fifty-five-year-old, stubborn, angry, confused child. But this child isn’t going to grow up. It’s going to become a baby. As Mum’s mind disintegrates, she’s going to lose a lot of functionality. Soon I’ll have to feed, bathe, and dress her, like a baby. She is slowly becoming my baby. The one I never had.
I still remember being in the doctor’s surgery as our GP delivered the news. I remember how the room narrowed and the light winnowed to spotlight the bald, shiny head of Dr. Lee. I remember the pencil that rolled slowly across the desk, and the dirty coffee mug sitting on an old coaster. I remember how the words decelerated and distorted, then sped up without warning. Early. Onset. Alzheimer’s. And then a thought popped into my mind:
This is my punishment
. Because I knew I’d have to care for her. There was no one else to do it. This is my punishment for never being the daughter I was supposed to be. And there’s nothing I can do about it. All I can do is watch her as her mind is slowly eaten away by the disease.
Since then, I’ve lived only half for myself. My first thoughts are always of her; she has to come first, now that she’s vulnerable. I’m in a constant push and pull with myself, a tug of war about how I will live my life. I have friends who pull me one way, while I push myself in another direction, striving for a life I’ll probably never get. Then there is that perpetual pull from Mum. The constant need. Continually, I ask myself, should I stop living for her? Should I give everything up: my dreams of a normal life with a husband and family? I know what Mum would want. I know what she would say. Maybe I’ve made the wrong decision. I don’t know.
I arrive at the café early. I knew I would. I worked out that it would take me twenty minutes to walk, but then I decided to give myself an extra ten minutes “just in case”. Before I knew it, I’d talked myself into leaving an hour early. But that’s okay. I can sit here and read my book, enjoying the sound of the coffee machine and ridding myself of the stresses at home.
I check my phone again, reminding myself of what he looks like, then I glance at the door to the café. He won’t be here yet; there’s still forty-five minutes to go until the time we agreed to meet. It’s 11am on Saturday, and the only other people in here are couples having brunch together, and a few people with their laptops, sipping cappuccinos. Even though it seems fairly unlikely that my internet date will murder me at 11am on a Saturday in broad daylight, Mum still tried to talk me out of going. Luckily, she lost her keys and got distracted, meaning I could slip out unnoticed, leaving her with Erin, her nurse.
I stir my coffee. It’s not good for me to think about Mum all day, which is what I usually do. Like the doctor keeps telling me, worrying about it isn’t going to cure her Alzheimer’s, but it might make me ill too. She has Erin. She’s fine.
Even though she’s been deteriorating quickly—as people with early onset Alzheimer’s tend to do—she was still aware enough to tell me that wearing my hair up only makes my slightly-too-large jaw look even bigger, and that my cardigan is frumpy. How do mothers do that? How do they always manage to slip in a criticism as easily as saying hello? It seems to be second nature.
The door opens, and my head snaps up. This is him. He’s shorter than I thought he would be. The photograph on his profile must be a few years old—or was taken in very good light—because it doesn’t show the wrinkles around his eyes and the grey in his beard. But he has a nice smile. He clocks me right away and walks over with his head bent low, staring at his feet. I can’t help but notice his shoes. They’re some sort of work boot, scuffed as though he’s been wearing them every day for years. The rest of his outfit is jeans and a zip-up top.
“You must be Sophie,” he says. “I’m Peter.”
I shake his hand and then try to discretely wipe his sweat on my skirt. “Hi, Peter. It’s nice to meet you.”
He sits down and shuffles the chair towards the table. His large stomach presses against the lip of the table. “You look just like your picture,” he says.
I’m not sure whether to take that as a compliment or not.
“What are you drinking?” he asks.
“Oh, an Americana.”
“I don’t like coffee myself,” he says. “The caffeine makes me jittery. My mum never let me drink tea when I was a child. It’s probably because of that.”
Mentioning Mum in the first minute… could be a bad sign. Then again, maybe we’ll bond over our dysfunctional maternal relationships. Seeing as it was my dysfunctional maternal relationship that destroyed my last romance, that might help.
“So, you’re an accountant?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says. “It’s a small firm, but we have loyal clients. We get enough work to keep us going. It’s mostly self-employed people. You’d be amazed at how unorganised they are.” He laughs. “Last year I got a bunch of receipts in a plastic bag.”
I raise my eyebrows. “Oh, that sounds—”
Luckily, the waitress comes over to take Peter’s order, saving me from trying to make more conversation. I’m not quite sure what to say next.
“What is it that you’re reading?” Peter gestures to the upside down book on the table.
“Oh.” I turn it over. “
. It’s my third read-through. I tend to read it every five years or so, to remind myself of why I love it.”
Peter laughs at this. It’s like a big “Ha!” Then he says, “I don’t like to read. I’d rather play video games. Don’t you think it’s exhausting, trying to imagine all those characters? And writers, well. They’re all narcissists.”
“How so?” I ask.
“Who else would sit there on their own and imagine people having a conversation? It’s weird.”
The waitress brings Peter a Coke. He slurps half of it down.
I’m still floored by his last comments. “But don’t you think that people need stories? And that our language is beautiful?”
He narrows his eyes. “You’re an English teacher, aren’t you?”
I bristle. “No. A primary school teacher. But I studied English at university.”
He clicks his fingers and grins. “I knew it!”
I grit my teeth, choosing not to remind him that my occupation was listed on my dating profile. Maybe if I can get him off the topic of English literature, he’ll show some hidden depths. “What are your interests, Peter? Do you like music?” Everyone likes music.
“More arrogant twats,” he says. “I can’t stand rock stars, can you? Knobheads like Bono trying to save the world.”
I shuffle my weight, physically cringing away from his penetrating gaze. I hate how confrontational he is. It’s as though everything he says has to be a debate. This isn’t a good start. Right now, I just want to leave. Being at home with my ill mother is preferable to this. “I suppose so. What about classical music, then?”
“I don’t have the patience for it. Now, country and western, that’s all right. Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton. She wrote ‘I Will Always Love You’. The original. Then Shitney Houston ruined it.” He laughs at his own joke.
I’m nodding along when my phone rings. “I’m really sorry—I should take this. My mother hasn’t been well.”
“Of course,” he says, and I can’t help but notice how his eyes light up at the mention of my mother.
I’m both relieved to get the call at such an opportune moment, and heart-heavy for how the date is going, plus there’s the prospect of problems at home. I find a quiet corner of the café and swipe my finger across the screen to accept the call.
“Erin, what’s wrong?” I ask, immediately anxious.
“It’s nothing to be
concerned about,” she says in a voice an octave higher than usual. I can picture her standing by the kitchen work surface, her arms flapping up and down as she speaks. Erin is a decade younger than I am, and sometimes her energy makes me feel exhausted. “But Mum isn’t doing too good today.” She always talks about Mum as though she’s a child. That doesn’t bother me so much. Mum is so awful to her that I allow Erin any little eccentricity she likes to make the job easier. “She’s quite agitated. She keeps asking for you. I’m so sorry to interrupt your date—”
“No, that’s okay,” I jump in. “To tell you the truth, I was looking for an excuse to leave.”
“That bad, huh?” Erin asks.
I glance across at Peter, who waves enthusiastically. I arrange my face into an expression I hope shows concern but not distress, and then shrug my shoulders apologetically.
“Yeah. He seems nice, but…”
“Not your cup of tea?” she finishes.
I sigh. “Not really. I’ll be home in twenty minutes.”
I hang up the phone and head back to Peter, sat slurping on his Coke. When he places the glass back down, there’s still moisture on his moustache, which makes me feel a little queasy.
“I’m sorry, Peter, but I’ll have to go. My mother is suffering with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the nurse has phoned to tell me that she’s very distressed. I’m going to have to go home.”
“Oh, what a shame,” he says. He finally wipes his mouth and frowns. “Can I drive you home?”
“That’s all right. I only live a few minutes away,” I lie. I don’t want to be alone with him in a moving vehicle.
“I could walk you home.” He smiles. It
a nice smile. There’s every chance that he’s a nice man, just not very good with people.
“No, you stay and finish your drink. I must hurry. It was very nice to meet you.”
The waitress winks at me as I hurry out of the café. I almost laugh, but then I think about going home, and the laugh fizzles out before it can begin.
“I will not do that.”
My shoulders are heavier when I hear her voice. Loud, cockney, mean-spirited. Three words my mother has embodied for my entire life.
“Get off me!”
“Mrs. Howland, please. You need to eat something.”
I open the door as a smash of china rings out through the house. “Mum? What are you doing?” I hurry into the kitchen to see a broken bowl sitting in a puddle of soup on the kitchen floor. “Why did you do that, Mum?”
“This woman broke into my house and tried to feed me poison,” she says with her nose in the air. Mum always stands tall and proud. She’s thin as a rake, with eyes as sharp as an eagle’s. It’s only her mind that has lost its edge.
“Mum, that’s Erin. She looks after you.” I smile at Erin, who’s paid for in part by the Alzheimer’s charity. She’s a sweet twenty-something with a pixie hairdo and a nose ring. “Come on, sit down for a moment. I’ll get this cleared up.” I try to herd her towards the dining table, but she bats my hand away.
“I can’t sit down, you stupid bitch. I’ve lost my keys.”
Erin’s eyes widen at the language, but I don’t even flinch.
“I’ve got your keys, Mum. They’re in my bag. I’ll give them to you after you’ve eaten.”
Lying to Mum got a lot easier when she started forgetting things every five minutes. But when her eyes narrow, I know I’m in trouble. When her eyes flash, and she goes quieter, I know she’s having one of her more lucid moments. “So, how was it, then? I see you kept your hair like that, even though I said not to.”
Erin bends down to help me pick up the pieces of broken bowl. When I stand, I avoid eye contact with my mother. It’s in these moments that I feel like a ten-year-old child, not a thirty-five-year-old woman.
“He was nice,” I say. “But I don’t think we’ll see each other again.”
She laughs. “Not with that jaw.” She turns to Erin, who she’s evidently decided is not a murdering burglar anymore. “You should’ve seen her as a baby. Chin like an anvil.” She tips her head back and laughs. “I didn’t know whether to feed her or hammer a horseshoe on her.” She laughs again.
Erin flashes me a pitying smile. She opens a bin bag, and we drop the pieces of the bowl into it.
“Still, at least he didn’t rape and murder you,” Mum continues. “That’s what happens on these internet dates. They’re all perverts. He probably grooms teenagers in his spare time. I bet that’s why he didn’t bother. You’re too long in the tooth.”
“Mum,” I say. My voice is quiet. Too quiet to stop my mother. I move across the kitchen to get a rag to clean up the spilled soup. Erin is silent. My insides crawl with embarrassment. I hate it when others witness what she’s like.