He’s watching her from the wardrobe in the spare room, eye set against a crack in the door, wide enough to peer carefully through. He’s hoping for answers – she’s been hiding something in the room for a day or two, sneaking up there alone. He has nothing so far, not that he’s watched her for long. She’s sat on her heels, feet bare and dusty on the Persian rug, playing with a soft toy doll. She doesn’t know he’s there – he’s sure of it.
He waits a little longer, five minutes, maybe less, and then she moves, wriggling around to sit cross-legged, shuffling over and off the end of the rug, discarding the doll to her left. He squints as she pulls up the corner of the tatty material, folding it over gently. The floorboards below are darker, unbleached by the sun.
Her fingers search the edges of a loose floorboard. She grips at the sides of it with her nails, lifting slowly.
“Hello,” she whispers into the hole, floorboard placed to the side.
The thick wood of the wardrobe creeks with his weight as he cleans closer, knees aching. She curves her head like an owl to seek out the nose, her thumb locked in her mouth, a nervous habit she’s had since she was an infant. He leans away from the doors, crouching down quietly, shrinking back from the sliver of light, hand over his mouth. Seconds pass in silence. He holds his breath a little longer before rising up to peer through the crack once again. She’s facing the hole in the floor, her body is covering it, the doll back in her hands.
He observes, anticipating an explanation. But all she does is whisper “hello” into the floor twice more before sighing and straightening herself up to stand.
She hums as she leaves the room, the floorboard in place, the rug laid neat. When he checks her hiding hole, he finds only the bones of a miniscule animal and a teddy bear with its left arm missing.
He does not watch her from the wardrobe the next day, but he pays close attention. His sister is a creature of habit. She visits the room three times, various items tucked into her chequered dress pockets; a yoyo, a handful of crayons, and something wet, staining the thin material of her dress in a damp circle. The summer is sticky and close, the farmhouse rife with spiders and dust – every time she returns from clambering up the stairs to visit her secret, she is ruddy with the heat.
He questions her in the kitchen later in the evening, both of them spilling crumbs on the linoleum from sharing a plate of buttered crackers. The sun is swelling down to a blur behind the hills that sit on the horizon, framed though the window like a Pissarro painting. Dad is in the garden, hammering nails into a snapped section of fence – his back bare and sweaty.
“What are you hiding upstairs?”
The thumb makes its way to her mouth. When she was a baby, he’d try to stop her from chewing by yanking it away, the skin catching on her baby teeth. He watches instead. Being six years older than his four-year-old sister lends itself to fresh strength he cannot always grasp. She refuses to reply.
“I know there’s something up there, in the floor.”
She removes the thumb and replaces it with a half-eaten cracker.
“If you don’t tell me I’ll tell Dad.”
He knows, as he says it, that it’ll do little to sway her. Dad has the ability to appear opaque and transparent in equal measure – his presence more ghostlike than paternal. She shrugs and swallows, taking a sip of watery orange juice and hopping down from the table.
“If you don’t tell me I’ll tell Mum.”
That holds her, half-way past the kitchen counter.
He tells her he can. He will. Mum is buried in the next village over, having died shortly after his sister’s birth. They visit every couple of months, speaking to her through the ground.
Her blonde brows furrow.
“No, you can’t” she pauses, “I’ve already told her.”
She says it petulantly, and spins on her heel, wandering back into the bowels of the house – the corridor to the kitchen dark despite the evening light.
A week passes, and he discovers little more than what he’s already witnessed. There are some new items – items she’s snuck in without him noticing; a dead frog, a pile of cut grass, and a mug of water. His sister once hid a bird in her doll house until it withered away, too young to fully grasp that animals need sustenance, not a pink plastic home made for miniature people.
The wardrobe beckons him tonight – another sweltering evening of their late July summer. The air in the farmhouse is thick – enough to cup, shape and contort if the elements allowed. Life has slowed to an agitated crawl. He wipes his top lip of salted sweat and sets his eye against the crack.
9:12 PM and she enters. She should be in bed. So should he. He can see his watch face in the low light. She drops down a brown paper bag from the local grocers and reaches for the floorboard, folding over the rug. From her position – body hovering over the hole, bag in front of her – there is little he can observe.
He listens instead.
As she did the week previous, she whispers down below – “hello”. Paper rustles and is discarded to the side, the contents between her fingers – he can tell by the way her elbows are bent. The room stills as she whispers again, and then it appears, whatever it is, for she sighs out a “you scared me, silly” and giggles, leaning further forward, her pyjama t-shirt riding a little up her back. A dull thud; the item dropped. She sits up, extends her legs back and sets herself out flat on her belly, face flush to the floor, peering inside.
A drop of sweat slips off his brow and down into the crook of his nose.
“Sorry I didn’t come see you earlier, I was busy.”
She’d spent the better part of the afternoon running around in the garden chasing bees, before disappearing towards the marsh near the bottom field.
“I hope you like it?”
Her head dips further in. His eye is beginning to sting – he blinks and rubs.
She talks then, spilling out anecdotes of her day, what she’s eaten, the teddies in her room; the adventures they might have taken whilst she was out. He’s about to sit down, tired and confused, when she quickly rolls onto her back and sits up, staring directly towards the wardrobe. If he didn’t know better, he could swear she was looking straight through to him. She sneezes instead, three times, then returns to talking into the hole.
The last week of July falls away to early August and the summer turns close and moist. The wardrobe is his home once again. Dad is out, buying rings of barb wire for the outhouse, so he’s been left in charge, a responsibility he ignores. She is in the garden, but he knows she’ll come to nourish her secret. It’s nearing lunchtime.
He runs a fingernail down his hand as he waits, digging it in where his thumb meets his palm, the affectation for calmness slowly dissipating. He counts out the days since the secret first appeared. Thirteen. He’s yet to uncover the truth.
A slam down below indicates her presence. As she makes her way upstairs, she begins to call out, small voice carrying in the echo of the high beams.
He holds a breath.
“Siiiiiiimon,” she sing-songs.
Doors open upstairs – his room, her room, Dad’s too.
He holds himself still – the spare room her final destination. She doesn’t call out to him again. She huffs instead and then grins, heading straight to the rug. A quick prod of the floor, rug and wood lifted, “hello” whispered. She is empty handed.
The finger running scratch marks into his hand begins again, moving slow and quiet. She lays flat, head propped on her elbow, speaking into the hole.
“Hello. No food today – couldn’t find anything.”
Her feet are bare and muddy, as though she’s being trampling in the overgrown marsh.
From the angle of her body he can see the black recess of the oblong hole. Her arm reaches inside, and she replies to a question he’s unsure she was asked.
“Dunno”, she sucks her bottom lip between her milk teeth, “he must be outside. “I’ll show you to him soon.”
His nail has started working deeper, biting.
She moves her arm back and forth, back and forth, reaching in deep.
“You want to come out today?”
“It’ll be okay.”
Her face drops closer as if to submerge.
“Come on, Mummy, don’t be scared.”
When he was younger Dad took him to swim in a river – the May afternoon cloudless. The water was ice-cold and as Dad stripped down to his boxers and waded in, he, in his aqua shoes and tiger t-shirt, remained crouched on a stepping stone, dipping his fingers in and out of the cool. Dad pulled him in a few minutes later, the shock making his whole body stop, panic prickling across him. That fear – acute and intense, is palpable within the room.
His sister calls “Mummy” again and then reduces her voice to a whisper, “come on.”
Her hands delve inside and disappear. When they resurface they are not alone. Wrapped from wrist to shoulder is a snake – thin and olive in colour. She lifts it gently and sits back, gazing openly at the animal. It nudges its oval head against the birthmark on her cheek softly and runs itself along her jaw, its underbelly a burnt coal white. It winds over her neck, coasting from her arm, and begins coiling up through her hair, stark against the blonde. She is smiling, stroking at the scales as it goes, holding both hands steady. It reaches her crown, tail at her spine. He can take no more of the scene and bursts from the wardrobe, tumbling through the doors.
He hears himself shout, though he’s not sure what he says, and the snake falters, dropping to her shoulder. His sister freezes.
Collapsed on his knees, his skin cut on the floor, he sets his eyes upon it. The wardrobe door swings back on its hinges. There is blood beneath his right knee. It hisses and glides out, body propped in the dust ridden air, contorted in the shape of an L, tail wound round his sister’s neck for support. It cocks its head to the side, as does his sister, almost mechanical in motion, the snake setting loose its black tongue, before calling it back – inquest over benevolence. Her tongue is sable too, his sisters, as though she’s rubbed coal along the flesh.
“It’s just mummy, Simon,” she says, mouth dark, small eyes now watching the snake reel from its stance. “Say hello.”
A young writer from Yorkshire, Emily Harrison has recently discovered that she actually likes creative writing, despite everything she may have previously said. She can be found on Twitter @emily__harrison, and has had work published with Storgy, Soft Cartel, Retreat West and Riggwelter Press to name a few.