As we stood outside the Victorian-terraced house, I wondered if you’d already be here; I hoped you wouldn’t. Carol, the estate agent, gave the door a good push and everyone wandered in eager to be shown around. As soon as I stepped foot inside the building, I felt your presence.
Some of the rooms had wooden floors, the others brown-flecked carpet which disappeared into the background. The walls were magnolia, the doors cream but scuffed, and the kitchen glistened with a sticky residue. It was cold, musty, and smelt wet, as if the heating hadn’t been switched on for years.
“The living-room makes this house special,” Carol’s voice echoed through the hallway. “Most student properties only have a kitchen to socialise in. It’s homey, isn’t it?”
The house was nothing like the plastic sterility of student halls after the summer’s deep-clean, but homey was a stretch. There’d be no screech of fire alarms at five in the morning, though I didn’t rule out being able to hear my housemates through the walls. Houses like this are unforgiving.
I didn’t see you, but I knew you were there, sequestered.
I met the three other three students I’d be living with; Isaac, Violet, and Jacinta all seemed pleasant, and I was anxious to make the best first impression I could. I kept reminding myself to smile. Isaac and Violet were studying History too, and Jacinta was studying Media. Jacinta had a warm glow about her. Her skin was honey and her black hair was tied back in a tight ponytail. She was the kind of person who never tried to be marvellous, but couldn’t help captivate people; she smiled with her eyes. All three of them had arrived to view the property with their parents; Violet and Jacinta with both, Isaac with his mum. I was alone; my parents wanted to come but both had work. I hoped no one would think it was strange.
I know you’d try, eventually, to separate me from the others.
Carol showed us the downstairs bedroom. The window looked out onto the street and I imagined faces leering through the thin curtains during the night. She then took us upstairs and showed us the other three bedrooms; the first two were fine, but nobody wanted the last bedroom. It was at the back of the house, was the smallest, the only bedroom without a double bed; hardly any natural light, and it smelt as if the desk drawer was hiding a mouldy sandwich.
Worse than anything, though, was the fact you were here. Maybe Dr Kenton was right: it doesn’t just go away.
“The rooms are numbered one to four in the order you’ve seen them; you’ll pick a number at random back at the office. It’s the fairest way of deciding rooms; we don’t deal with house politics. Does everyone like the house?” Carol asked. It was a pointless question as there was nowhere else to live and the semester started next week. It was either sign it, or lose it.
“Yes, it’s great.” Violet said, eyes gliding over the fourth bedroom, nose wrinkled.
“Isn’t the house cosy, Isaac?” his mum asked. She looked like Isaac; heavy-set and overbearing. I could tell none of the parents were keen on the property, but it was this, the streets, or home – alternatives no one was prepared to entertain.
Isaac nodded. “It’s alright, I guess.” I knew I was worried about living away from home, but Isaac looked sick, his sweat seeping through his t-shirt.
“It’ll be better when we move our things in, make it more personal.” Jacinta almost chirped. Positivity: perhaps she’d be the odd one out after all.
“Sounds great,” I said, stepping out of the bedroom, keen to escape your watching eyes. I hoped you’d be gone from the house by the time I moved in the following weekend.
Henri and I got into the car. His mum told us to take it steady; the roads were icy this morning.
Back at the office Carol went over the paperwork, ensuring she covered the many ways we could lose our deposit. However tidy and well-behaved we were, it was clear we’d never see that four-hundred pounds again. I wished I had saved more during my gap year. Carol peeled four blazing pink post-it notes from a stack, numbered them one to four, and folded them into tiny squares before balling her hands and shaking them. I imagined the tiny pink squares bumping around her palms, bouncing from her skin, tumbling into each other as if she were a human tombola drum.
When Carol opened her palms I saw you sitting there. I closed my eyes, counted to three, and opened them again. You were gone, replaced by the four pink squares.
“I’m picking first because I’m the youngest.” Violet plucked a square from Carol’s unfolded palm. Had we said when our birthdays were? All I want to do is fit in, but you’re doing it again, even here.
“Ladies first,” Isaac said to Jacinta, who smiled and took a square.
Isaac picked up a square, dropped it back, and chose the other. The last square was mine; we unwrapped them at the same time.
“One! I’m downstairs!”
The smallest, darkest room in the house was mine, but I wasn’t going to make a fuss. And I wasn’t going to let you stop me from embarking on a new stage of my life.
Tyres screeching. Glass breaking. Black smoke, cold air, the smell of burning. I feel someone pulling at my arms.
“Henri?” I shout.
On Saturday I was the last to move in. I stood in front of the door and waited.
“You alright?” Dad was behind me carrying boxes. “Let’s get inside then, these are heavy.”
I’m ready for this. I twisted the key, shoved the door like Carol had done, and went in. Down the hallway I saw Isaac sitting in the kitchen drinking a cup of coffee with his mum, as the smell of bleach blasted its way through the hallway. The kitchen was cramped and I couldn’t imagine more than two of us cooking at once. Giant orange patches of rust were slowly gnawing their way through the cooker.
“Where’d you want me to dump this, Trent?” Dad asked.
“My room’s upstairs at the back.”
Isaac turned around. “Alright, Trent?”
“Yeah, you?” I replied. “Are the girls in?”
“Violet’s upstairs, Jacinta’s gone out to buy food.”
“They yours?” I nodded at the shiny new microwave and silver kettle I didn’t notice during the viewing.
“Yeah, Mum got them.”
“There’s a cupboard each for everyone.” Isaac’s mum gestured towards four cupboards behind her. The doors were beige with silver-coloured handles which looked as if they’d been chewed by a dog. “Everyone has a drawer each for cutlery and utensils, and we’ve put all the plates, bowls, pans and all that together in some of the cupboards; we thought it’d be easier that way.” Her idea, not Isaac’s.
“Need help unloading?” Isaac asked.
“Nah, Dad and I will be fine, I think.”
I collected the last box from the car and followed Dad up to my new bedroom. When I got there I found him standing in the middle of the room looking up and down the walls. I could tell he wasn’t impressed.
“Bit small, isn’t it?”
“It’s cosy.” I told him.
“That’s one word for it.” Dad laughed. “Better watch for mould; think you’ve got some near the window. Smells like it. You need to grab some mould spray.”
“Yeah I know.”
“They’ll probably sell it at a pound shop.”
I stopped speaking. After weeks of teasing about turning my room at home into a games room or getting a Jacuzzi, Dad didn’t want to leave me here. He was falling for the parental trap happening up and down the country; he’d hate himself for it I’m sure. He scratched his stubble, grabbed a suitcase, dropped it onto the bed.
“I’ll help you unpack.” He started taking out t-shirts and trousers carefully folded by Mum. It was like watching a game of Tetris in reverse.
“It’s probably easier if I get on with it by myself.”
He stopped but didn’t look at me, then sighed. “Alright, what do you want me to do then?”
I stopped unpacking the box. “You can still beat the traffic home.”
“I don’t mind the traffic.”
“Easy to get stuck on the M4 on a Saturday. Car breaks down in the middle lane and it’s all over from there.”
“Enough of that,” Dad laughed. “I guess I’ll go then?”
From the front door I watched Dad drive off. He texted me when he was home, hoped I’d be alright on my own, and wished me luck.
But I wasn’t on my own. You were still here.
Dr Kenton said it would take time. Perhaps years. I didn’t want to believe him, but you’re upstairs, lurking in my room. You haven’t gone unnoticed, though I don’t know why you’re still following me, making life difficult.
Isaac’s mum stared at me from the kitchen as I climbed the stairs. Her eyes narrowed as if I were a series of blanks she couldn’t fill on a crossword and the clue had given nothing away. I heard her whispering when she thought I was out of earshot, but I couldn’t make out what she was saying.
In my room I pulled open the purple curtains as far as they would go, and what little light there was oozed in slowly like water pooling. Even on a cloudless day it was a pitiful offering. The single divan looked worn and when I sat on the mattress the springs dug in. I could get a mattress topper, along with some mould spray.
The walls were marked with the ghosts of tenants past; tiny spots of discolouration caused by blu-tack and other chips and scrapes. This encouraged me – if they managed, then so could I. But they didn’t have you here, did they?
I can’t see you, but I know you’re around, hiding somewhere. You’re not yet brave enough to crawl onto my suitcase and rummage through my clothes, to ascend to the top of a box and see what I’ve brought with me. No, you’re waiting for me to make the first move, to see if I’ll scope you out, capture you, crush you. As if I haven’t already tried.
“I just want a fresh start,” I say to the space beneath the bed, scanning the dark corners and crevices.
“Who are you talking to?”
Through the crack in the door I saw Isaac standing there, his mouth agape. Caught off-guard, I said nothing and returned his gaze. As he walked away, I wondered if he’d tell Jacinta and Violet that he’d seen me talking to an empty room.
How quickly you weave your desires.
Sirens. I was lying on my back in pain. There were people crying, on the phone, running with towels and blankets. And there was Henri, the only one not making a sound, a movement.
In the early evening, after everyone had finished unpacking, Isaac, Jacinta, Violet, and I were sitting in the living room. Reflected in the large mirror hung above the fireplace were four housemates nervous among new places and new people. Isaac and I were sitting on a maroon sofa, with Jacinta and Violet sitting opposite. A low, oak-effect coffee table, stood between us as unfamiliar as we were to one another. Violet was glued to her phone, every now and then she’d smile to herself before tapping her screen. Isaac fidgeted uncomfortably.
“Why don’t we go out somewhere?” Jacinta said.
“I’ve just ordered takeaway,” said Isaac.
“How about clubbing?” Violet suggested.
“Not feeling it to be honest.”
“Yeah same,” Jacinta looked at me and smiled. My hands felt clammy.
“Any ideas, Trent?”
Everyone was looking at me. Time stretched, everything in the room ballooned in size. Hesitantly, I spoke.
“Like a pub might be good maybe.”
“A pub?” The corner of Violet’s top lip twisted. I knew the kind of pub she was imagining: a pub filled with old men who’d been there all day, dusty hideaways, rickety chairs, tables with one leg shorter than the rest, and booths upholstered with fabric laced with animal hair which billowed the scent of sweat when you sat down. The kind of pub I imagined her dad might go to, where you’d order a Cosmopolitan and the barman would return your request with a raised eyebrow, a blank stare, and maybe the threat of violence. “I hate pubs. What about a cocktail bar?”
“Really, Violet?” said Isaac.
“I don’t do cocktails.”
“I think cocktails sound great.” I wanted a new start and I was determined to have one. Dr Kenton said I should tackle you head on; if you weren’t giving up, then neither would I.
“I’ll start looking up cocktail bars then, shall I?” Jacinta asked. “It’s been ages since I’ve had cocktails.” I could feel her enthusiasm. This was good, this was progress. I smiled at Jacinta. “See if there’s a Turtle Bay–”
“I love Turtle Bay!” Violet yelled.
“They’re great. They do two-for-one most of the time; their happy hour is pretty much every hour. Henri used to-” You’d caught me unprepared, mid-flow. My tongue was stuck to the webbing and the others looked awkward as I stuttered, mumbling into obscurity.
Flashing lights. The paramedics asking what had happened, the police wanting help with their investigation. But I didn’t know anything. One moment Henri and I were in the car and I was driving us into town, the next it was all glass, black smoke, and blood.
I didn’t know if Henri was alright. None of the nurses would tell me anything.
When Dad arrived at the hospital he couldn’t look at me. And then I knew.
“You alright, Trent?” Violet asked.
Jacinta looked at me and didn’t smile, her eyes were fixed on my face and she looked pale.
“My friend used to work at one.” I said quickly. “There must be one somewhere?”
“Las Iguanas is lush too. What time are we going?” Violet asked.
“Not until I’ve had my takeaway – it’ll be here soon.”
“Both places have their happy hour before seven and after ten, but it’s half five now. Las Iguanas is by the harbourside, which isn’t far from here. Like, ten, fifteen minutes tops? Jacinta put away her phone. “Six or ten?”
The doorbell rang.
“Ten.” Isaac stood up. “As we’re close there’s no need to rush.”
I stood up and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, a little shaken, but smiling. It was a good change, the kind of change I needed. But you were still there and I knew the cracks were beginning to show again.
“It’s been two years, Trent.”
“I know. It’s strange how time passes.”
“True. You’re off to university in a few months. How does that make you feel?”
“Good. Excited. I just need to be away from all this. Do you think it’ll follow?”
“Perhaps. People respond differently when things like this have happened to them. Some never get over it, but you’ll find you’re never alone. Call me if ever you need to.”
Isaac bailed. I knew he would. He said the curry he ordered was dodgy. He never had any intention of going out with us.
Jacinta and Violet were dressing up for the occasion so I thought I’d make an effort too. I changed into a red flannel shirt with a white t-shirt underneath and spritzed some aftershave on my neck. As I left the room I told you, very quietly, to leave me alone.
The girls were waiting for me in the living room when I came downstairs. Violet’s blonde hair burst in curls against the black of the dress. The way Jacinta’s black and white polka dot skirt swished when she moved was mesmerising. Both were beaming at me, glowing.
“Looking dapper, Trent! Ready?” Jacinta asked, grabbing a long, red coat.
It didn’t take us long to get to the harbourside. The water was black ink animated, ghostly, yet calm, reflecting all the lights from the bars and restaurants. The city lights had swallowed the stars. Coming from a small town I was excited by the atmospheric buzz and the amount of choice, making a mental note of the all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants we passed.
The cocktail bar it wasn’t too busy and we managed to sit at a table with a view of the harbour – great for people watching, which I wasn’t alone in enjoying. For hours we sat drinking, mixing drinks, chatting, getting to know one another, feeling free. Soon the empty glasses gathered around us like a crowd. I felt fuzzy bathing in all the bright lights, the alcohol, the conversation, the company.
Jacinta was talking about her time inter-railing around Europe when a tall, skinny guy around my age walked past. His skin was bronze coffee and his hair as black as the night sky outside. He looked exactly like Henri.
And that’s when I saw you.
You were by the candle in the middle of the table, creeping around the maze of empty glasses, magnified and distorted by ice in different states of melting. Your legs looked longer, your body thicker, your eyes more numerous. You weren’t going to leave me alone. I felt sick and dizzy and I noticed the girls were no longer talking. Jacinta put a hand on my shaking arm and asked if I was okay. I stood up, swayed a little, “Had too much,” I said.
I paid the bill, ignoring their insistence to stay, and then I headed out, back to our house, unsteady but glad of the fresh air.
No seventeen-year-old ever thinks they’re going to bury their best friend.
The night after his funeral, Henri came to visit. Blood dripped from his ears, hair matted and dirty, I could just make out specks of glass. His arm was twisted back unaturally.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He held it in his hands, its eight legs spread across two palms, eyes watching. It climbed down from its perch and onto the foot of the bed. Henri walked out of the room as if he was still alive. The creature remained, following my every movement.
I wished you knew how hard I tried to regain control of the car.
There was a knock on my bedroom door. I tilted my head to the side so my voice wouldn’t be muffled and wiped my eyes. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, but Dr Kenton said I shouldn’t push people away.
Jacinta opened the door. I hoped it would be her. She still had her red coat on, and she gave me a faint, compassionate smile. I sat up. The way the light from my bedside lamp fell on her left half of her face in shadow, the other half illuminated and radiant. She was holding two mugs in one hand, something I’d never been able to do. I watched the steam swirl into the shadows.
“I wasn’t sure how you like your tea, but I brought you some anyway.” She sat down beside me on my bed. “They say a cup of tea can make everything better.”
“I’m not so sure it will.” I told her. I wanted to be okay. I wanted to meet new people, experience new things. I wanted to fit in and I wanted to remember Henri. But not like this. I could still see you sitting at the centre of your web, thick and dirty-white as if they’d caught the room’s dust. You were bigger than usual, your size the mirror of my mind.
“No, I’m not so sure it works either. It’s better to have one than to not have one, I suppose.” Jacinta placed the two mugs on the bedside table. She unbuttoned one of her coat pockets. Out from inside, long black legs emerged. A large spider slowly crawled into the palm of her hand. I couldn’t breathe. I looked around and found you watching us, pondering Jacinta and her creature.
“How can you bear to carry it around with you like that?” I asked.
“What else am I supposed to do with it?” Jacinta didn’t look at me. She kept moving her hands so her spider could scuttle from one palm to the next. It ran on a treadmill of skin. “I don’t know what or if something happened, but I’m here if you ever want to, you know, talk. Or just sit. Sometimes just being is enough.”
“I wanted to leave it behind. I thought if I were some place new it wouldn’t find me here.”
Jacinta shook her head. “I don’t think it works like that – not for me anyway; it’s always there, and it’s always going to be, I think, even with the pills.”
“Henri, my best friend. It was a car accident.”
“I’m sorry, Trent.” Jacinta ushered her spider back into her coat pocket.
“How about you, if I’m allowed to ask?”
“I can’t,” she took one of the mugs of tea from me. “I have nothing to tell. I can’t remember when it started happening, but it did, and I don’t know why. Some days are better than others.”
We sat there, the two of us, drinking tea in silence, among all our worldly fears.
Santino Prinzi is currently a third year English Literature with Creative Writing undergraduate student at Bath Spa University. Since 2015 he has helped with National Flash Fiction Day in the UK, and he was awarded the 2014/15 Bath Spa University Flash Fiction Prize in July of the same year. His flash fiction and prose poetry has been published, or is forthcoming, in various places, including Litro Online, Flash Frontier, CHEAP POP, Ink Sweat and Tears, the 2014 and 2015 National Flash Fiction Day UK anthologies, Unbroken Literary Journal, and was selected for The Best of Vine Leaves Journal 2015. He can be found on Twitter @tinoprinzi and more information is available on his website: https://tinoprinzi.wordpress.com