Dead Again (Chapter One)
In a week I'll be murdered. I need to figure out who kills me before they do it again. I know they'll try. If I was that person, I would. I'm going back through my memories in case I've missed something important, sifting through things I know for sure happened. I'm amazed how most of it can be summed up in a mood or a single image. This last week glows stronger than any other memory, strides high and won't be silenced. It's all about the detail, seeing everything clearly and in full definition. I can see it all now.
It's Friday, June first. I wake up as usual before my alarm goes off. My husband has his back to me, an impenetrable wall I make no effort to break. His breaths come out in a snore and I'm on my back listening to the rhythm of life. The sun breaks through a crack in the curtain to fuel the headache behind my eyes. After forty-four years of mornings, they don't seem to get easier.
It's surprisingly chilly in the morning, and I shiver, wishing I'd set the thermostat higher. I rise from bed with reluctance, stumbling over Rick's shoes because he left them in the middle of the floor. Again. I swear under my breath. The night before we had a row. Hurtful words linger in the air, and I want to get to work before Rick wakes. Work is both my thorn and my escape.
Some words and actions can't be taken back, and I'm regretting suggesting we should divorce and go our separate ways. Rick told me to sleep on it, that it will seem different in the morning. Rick had been drinking. Stresses of the job, a symptom of success. There's always tomorrow, my mum used to say whenever I was upset. What if tomorrow never gets here?
I'm making coffee and enjoying the silence of the house while everyone else still sleeps. I think that's why I always wake early and naturally fill the role as wife and mother in some fifties throwback sitcom. Here's your coffee dear, have a great day at work, and I love you. Yeah, right: that's not me. I'm selfish with my morning time. No bacon and eggs are frying ready for my family. The house is a mess because I've no time or inclination to clean. The kitchen table isn't used for eating, but for storing things that aren't quite ready to be put away yet. Don't get me started on the ironing. I sigh and regret giving up smoking because it would give me something else to do. Once smoking kick started my day. When I was much younger, of course.
‘Did you see the lights in the trees last night?’ That's my daughter, Summer. She looks like me more than Rick: skin white as chalk and flaming red hair. She has fewer freckles than me, but they seem to appear one by one with age. I wonder how many freckles I have now? Summer has learning disabilities. Everything to her is fantastic and fun until it breaks the norm and she'll literally meltdown. I'm pretty much the same. Perhaps I'm undiagnosed? I think she's imagining the lights because she found out the woods are apparently a UFO hotspot. Last week I found her stood in the garden staring into the sky, obsessing over nothing. But questioning her reality is asking for trouble.
‘No, I was fast asleep just like you should've been,’ I say.
She gives me that look she has perfected all by herself, though I suspect she got it from the way I sometimes look at Rick: narrowed eyes, pouting mouth. She's seventeen and a beautiful version of me. I'm so proud of her. ‘You weren't sleeping because I heard you and Dad shouting. Again. That's all you ever seem to do. Emma's parents don't fight like you do.’
I sigh and rub my eyes as if that can ease my headache. ‘You shouldn't be listening to conversations that are supposed to be private.’
She shrugs. ‘Then why make it easy to hear?’ She sits down at the cluttered serving of keys, handbags, paperwork and various other junk attracted to the table. ‘What's for breakfast?’
‘I don't like coffee.’
I sip mine. ‘Yes, you do.’
A mist goes over her eyes, her face becoming blank. Then she's back in the room. ‘Oh, yeah. I do like coffee.’
It's just a game we play, following our script. Sometimes we improvise, but not today. So I abandon my own coffee and go to make her one. Behind me, she's chatting away, but I'm not really listening to her, just agreeing from time to time. My attention is on the woods out back, wondering if there really is something in them. For the last few years, people have flocked to the area for the UFOs. There's a local group running from the village, and I'm worried about Summer's growing interest in them. She's already thought of as weird at school, so I don't want her giving them more reason to make fun of her. It's bad enough her mum is a teacher, but at least I can keep an eye on her. Anyway, my personal opinion of UFOs and aliens is nonsense. There are greater dangers to worry about in life. Around twenty years ago, they found the body of a woman. They never did find the killer. It bothers me he's still out there, but I don't really give it too much attention.
I turn and smile, though it's more a wince. ‘What?’
'You're, like, not even listening to me.’
‘I am.’ I hand her a cup of coffee, and she takes it from me, looking at it with puzzlement.
‘I don't like coffee.’
‘You do. We've been over this already. You don't like tea.’
‘Really?’ She shrugs and takes a sip. ‘Oh, this is great. Can I go camp in the woods on Saturday? I want to be abducted. Maybe they can fix me.’
I brush the hair from her precious face. ‘There's nothing wrong with you.’ I want to cry, but I don't. ‘You have to stop this alien obsession. It's not the nineties, and you're not Scully.’
‘I love the X-Files. Can I watch it tonight.’
‘Can we get pizza tonight?’
‘Summer, just drink your coffee and go and get ready for school.’ I'm a little harsh, and I regret snapping at her.
Summer puts her cup down along with her gaze. There's something on the floor at her feet she suddenly finds interesting. There's a full-on sulk going now, and I leave her to it, hoping she'll snap out of it. As I head upstairs to dress, I pass Rick on the stairs. My intention is to ignore him, but he touches my hand, breaking the wall between us with a gentle gesture.
‘Neve, I'm sorry,’ he whispers. ‘For whatever was said last night. I'll drive you and Summer to school.’
‘You don't have to do that.’ I'd rather he didn't because I need space, time away to think. To decide if I want to divorce, leave my comfortable life. Sometimes it's easier to stay in pain, to put up with things because that's just how the world is. We are given rules, and it's hard to break them.
‘I want to,’ Rick says. ‘Or are you trying to avoid me?’
A laugh escapes me, but I stifle it before it consumes me. ‘Fine, just don't make a scene in front of Summer. I don't want to talk about it, either.’
The rest of the morning is a blur as we perform our rituals to ready ourselves for the day. By the time my warpaint is on, and I'm feeling human again, Summer is in her school uniform and standing by the front door with Rick. I notice Rick hasn't shaved and is in jeans.
‘Are you not going into work today?’ I ask.
Rick shrugs. ‘I’m working from home.’
He's an app developer, a tech guy who earns enough that I don't have to work. I'm proud of him for everything he's achieved, and it was a great help in the early years with Summer. We step out onto the drive and walk towards the Land Rover, the gravel crunching underfoot. A crow sits on the old wall we're not allowed to knock down because it's listed. The crow caws, spreading wings of night. A cold shiver runs through me. I hate crows. We get into the car, and we're off. I stare at our house, sitting solitary with the woods curling around it. Sometimes I think the trees are drawing closer, uprooting at night and moving an inch more. Coming for us in our sleep. The house has a round turreted part at the side with a spire reaching to the sky. It used to be the hunting lodge of the old manor, long gone. The trees would've swamped it once. The idea of that scares me.
We're on the road leading into town, and the open countryside reminds me how isolated we are out here. That's why we bought it, to be far away from people and all their problems. We have our own, you see. I close my eyes. The gentle rocking of the car, the purr of the engine and Summer's soothing chatter lulls me to a light doze. I'm woken by a scream from Summer. A massive crow has hit the windscreen, and its wings beat against the glass, black eyes staring right into mine. The screen is cracked from the impact, and the car screeches and swerves. We hit the grass verge with a bump, and Rick struggles with the wheel, swearing through gritted teeth. Finally, we come to a stop. Rick is staring ahead, taking deep breaths, his hands knuckle white as he grips the steering wheel.
He looks at me with a blank expression, his face as pale as mine. Then he snaps out of it. ‘Are you okay?’ He turns in his seat, and looks at Summer. ‘Honey?’
Summer is looking ahead at the crow. She screams, and it goes right through me. Silence settles. Then she screams again. I lean over the back seat and try to calm her down, keeping my voice as soothing as I can despite my own shock. I'm shaking, and my neck hurts. Finally, Summer stops screaming, but she won't stop staring at the crow, her eyes bulging and lower lip trembling. I turn back to look at the bird. It's huge. One wing gives a final twitch, and it's still. But the eye still regards me with an accusing stare.
‘Fucking bird came out of nowhere,’ Rick says. He gets out, and I join him.
‘Is it dead?’ I ask, staring at the crow.
Rick pulls it up by the wing, and throws it to the side of the road. It lands in a heap in the long grass. ‘A human would've been killed at the speed we were going. So yeah, it's dead.’ He inspects the damage.
Summer appears at my side, arms folded across her chest. ‘We should bury it.’
Rick glances at her. ‘Thousands of animals get killed on the road every day. I once saw a documentary about a guy who collects roadkill to eat.’
I roll my eyes. ‘You're not helping.’
Summer has tears rolling down her face and she walks to the bird, bending over to look at it. I join her and we both stare at death.
‘I’ll go, and find some flowers,’ Summer says. ‘That's what you do, isn't it? Like, you lay flowers at a grave, right?’ She wanders away, and begins picking daisies. After a moment, I join her and we soon have enough for a decent covering. We cover the crow as best we can, and stand back to admire the flowery grave.
Rick joins us. ‘I’ll get the screen fixed after I've dropped you off.’ He stares down at the crow. ‘What's this?’
Summer sniffs. ‘It's a dead bird, Dad.’ She looks at me. ‘Are we going to school now?’
I don't feel like going to work, but I know life goes on. For us at least. ‘You feel okay now?’
She gives a weak smile. ‘It's just a dead bird. Thousands of animals get killed all the time.’ She repeats Rick's words in a serious, adult voice. I put my arm around her, and we head back to the car. Above us, more crows circle. What is it you call a gathering of crows?