This story is by Corinne Harrison and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Fanning herself in the heat, Adelia surveyed the man staring out from the large, copper framed photograph. He had been a handsome man, she thought. He had grey eyes, dense as steel, full lips, and a long slightly crooked nose. In this picture his hair looked like the night sky during a comet shower, for the black hair was peppered with streaks of silver. Adelia thought that they must have dug through the archives and found a picture taken years ago. It couldn’t be a recent photograph, she thought, for the man in it looked happy.
She looked away. Mourners were streaming past her but she stayed there for some time, the man’s grey eyes pinning her to the spot as they had done in life.
Next to the large portrait was a picture of a family. The man was there, sitting next to a woman with pale blue eyes and blonde curls hanging decorously like baubles. Between them were two children, a boy and a girl. They were all sitting on a beach mat and beaming dutifully at the camera. Adelia remembered when the photograph had been taken. A moment before the shutter clicked, her mother had barked at her sullen daughter to smile.
Looking at the photographs, Adelia’s attention was caught by a movement behind them. Something scarlet flashed, twisted around the frames and disappeared.
‘Adelia honey, how are you?’ Adelia’s aunt had materialised beside her, head cocked and taking in her niece’s pallid face. ‘I’ve been meaning to come and say hello all afternoon, but I could see you had your hands full.’
‘It’s ok,’ Adelia said. The smile she gave in return felt like overstretched elastic.
Her aunt hesitated and then, with a pained expression said. ‘This day can’t be easy for you. First Ian and… and now this.’
Adelia took a deep breath and crossed her arms tightly around herself. She looked around for a change of subject and as she did, noticed something flutter past her periphery and out of view. She looked around. The French doors of the cottage had been thrown open in an effort to give relief to the mourners and a gust of wind had breezed in. Whatever it was had drifted through to the kitchen.
‘Can I get you a drink Aunty?’ Adelia said suddenly. ‘Tea? Coffee?’
Her aunt surveyed her for a moment, a slight nook between her eyebrows.
‘Tea please dear,’ she said finally.
Adelia went through to the kitchen and bent down to open the bottom cupboard. She gasped as something burst out and rolled over the floor.
It was a line of scarlet ribbon, bouncing in waves and snaking out of the room. Adelia stared at it for a moment and then looked around. No one else seemed to pay it any mind, it had even knocked against a man’s loafer before rolling on without his notice.
She followed it through the house, gliding past shoulders, bumping into someone with a vague apology and passing a group of elderly women who were cackling away together. Through the mourners, the trays of hors d’oeuvres, one crying woman, a listless looking group of children, she walked along the scarlet ribbon like a tightrope.
It led her outside and she found herself alone on the edge of the driveway. The line of ribbon had ended in a pool of silk, curled up like a cat on the pavement. Adelia bent to inspect it, hand outstretched – before recoiling in horror. What she took for a pool of silk was in fact a pool of thick red liquid. She hesitated and, with shaking fingers, bent to pick up the end of the ribbon, the fraying edges dripping liquid onto the pavement. It was blood. Blood that was the same, scarlet colour as the ribbon.
Someone from the cottage was calling her name but she was deaf to their calls. Instead, she heard a horn and a great crash as though two metal bodies had smashed together. Adelia looked down and saw a splatter of blood, shining from the bonnet of a car.
‘Adelia?’ A voice said behind her. Someone was striding her way. ‘Adelia! Oh for god’s sake,’ the voice tutted behind her. ‘No no, it’s fine, she’s just in shock. I’ll get her inside.’
It was a hot day, but the hands that gripped her shoulders could have been made from cold stone. Adelia was marched back into the cottage, through the crowd of mourners and into an empty room.
As soon as the door closed the hairs raised on the back of Adelia’s arms and her breathing came sharp and short. She surveyed the room through a panicked haze, looking at the football posters covering the walls, the small plastic soldiers scattered on a set of drawers, the Star Wars duvet on the single bed. It was the bedroom of a seven year old boy who hadn’t used it in eight years.
Adelia looked around to see a pair of pale blue eyes burning into her own. A blonde woman, clad in a knee length black dress, stood in the way of the door, arms crossed. Adelia saw that the woman’s eyes were narrowed, a clear sign that she had something scathing to deliver.
‘For god’s sake Adelia, what do you think you’re doing creating a scene like that?’ The woman said.
Adelia said nothing. She simply sat on the bed and ran her hands through her hair.
‘I really don’t need this right now Jane,’ she said.
‘Just because you started calling me by my first name doesn’t mean I’m not still your mother,’ Jane snapped. ‘I told you I didn’t want you here. I told you to make an excuse and stay away. Now you’ve ruined everything.’
Adelia looked up in time to see Jane pinch her eyelids and give a sigh.
‘I wasn’t going to miss dad’s funeral, it was important to me,’ Adelia said.
‘Your father wouldn’t have wanted you here,’ Jane hissed. She was bearing down on her daughter now, her eyes glazing over with tears.
‘What you did to us, what you did to your father. What you did to Ian.’
Adelia heard the sound of a great crash again. She had been fourteen, Ian, seven. She had been told to watch him while he played in the front garden but had been distracted, talking to a friend on the phone. When she heard the screech of the car and the ensuing crash she looked around to see that her brother was no longer in front of the house.
Adelia had run so fast the soles of her feet were stinging when she arrived at the road to see Ian’s football bouncing away. Curiously, the first thing her eyes trained on was a splatter of blood on the bonnet of a car. It curled and stretched across the metal, a perfect scarlet stroke. It reminded her of the red ribbon her mother used for wrapping Christmas presents. Someone had screamed, snapping her out of her reverie and it was only then that she had brought herself to look at the small, motionless body on the road.
That small splatter of blood was tortuous.
‘Your father wouldn’t have started drinking if Ian hadn’t died,’ Jane continued. ‘His liver wouldn’t have failed, he would still be here. Both my boys would still be here with me if it weren’t for you.’ Jane sobbed, clapping a hand to her mouth.
‘Mum,’ Adelia said weakly. ‘Mum, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.’
Something was tearing through Adelia’s chest. It was a terrible keening sound, clawing up her throat and breaking through the room. But her mother was shaking her head slowly, letting Adelia’s words shrivel like burning paper and fade into the space between them.
It was ironic, Adelia thought. She had spent many days wishing that she had died instead of her brother and it was now clear that her mother shared the sentiment. Instead, it was her father who had passed. Adelia looked again around the room, in the house she had left as soon as she could.
Behind her, she heard her mother leave the room.
Adelia remained there for a long time. She heard the murmur of the guests outside the door but eventually, the hubbub quietened. Outside, the sunlight dimmed and darkness poured through the window, throwing her into blackness. No one had come to check on her since her mother left.
In time Adelia got up and swiped at her face, surprised to see that it left her fingers wet. She moved towards the door, feeling as though her bones were filled with cement. As she did, the glare of a street light caught her eye through the window. She glanced around and froze.
Something was moving through a crack in the window, pouring into the room like sand. Adelia watched through the darkness as the length of ribbon fluttered down to the floor into a red heap.