I think everyone’s experienced the central theme here: a sense of social suffocation. You feel you must impress the people you’re with, or at least avoid their judgement, and so must be on your best behaviour. Eat with a straight back and hold the knife and fork correctly; be painfully polite and have impeccable manners; smile and answer questions. If you’re like me, your behaviour is the result of a polite mask you acquire, while inside you suffocate, slowly. Or maybe I’m just a psychopath… Anyway, enjoy!
By Ben Pienaar
If a stranger looked in during the evening, they would see the family of five sitting around a fire in the living room: the straight backed mother focused on her knitting, the father perhaps still in his suit and reading a book about politics or history; the sixteen year old son perhaps also reading or maybe just sitting in intense thought; the fifteen year old daughter helping her ten year old sister work on a puzzle laid out on the floor. The stranger would probably grow bored very quickly and move on. The horror of the situation would be lost on all but the most perceptive.
The sixteen year old son was Cedric Dillon, and on the evening in question he was fighting a fierce internal battle with his mother. As usual, it was short lived, and he exhausted himself within minutes. If the stranger had looked very closely just then, he might have seen a single tear well up and roll down the boy’s cheek.
‘Cedric,’ Agatha said, only the smallest hint of annoyance present in her voice, ‘why don’t you play a game of chess with your father?’
That was the end of it, of course. It took every ounce of focus and effort just to put up the slightest resistance to her, every bit of willpower. After a game of chess he’d be drained completely. It was amazing she even let him try anymore, though he knew why she did: having him sit quiet and motionless was her way of punishing him, and of reminding him how little power he had. She knew how badly the boredom got to him, how it suffocated him.
His head nodded and his arms pushed him up out of the soft couch.
‘Sounds like a plan. We’ll see how you’ve improved,’ his father said, standing and moving to the little table in the corner, where an ornate ivory chessboard was set up. He didn’t answer, letting his legs walk him over to the table and sit him down. She could make him shut up and she could change the words that came out of his mouth, but she’d never been able to make him speak. For whatever reason, that was still his.
They played a long game, and by the end of it Colleen and Janet had both gone up to bed, stopping to give Agatha a kiss and a cheerful goodnight. Cedric smiled whenever they did that, knowing that when each of them opened their mouths they were cursing her in their own way, screaming bloody hate in her face. She changed what came out, of course, but in order to do that she had to know what was going to come; she heard every horrendous word.
‘Good game, son,’ his father said, checkmating him. ‘I should get to bed, though. It’s a big day tomorrow and I can’t wait to snatch a little sleep and get started. See you bright and early tomorrow morning!’ Cedric could tell from the robotic way he spoke that she wasn’t making him say it. As his father kissed Agatha goodnight and ascended the stairs, Cedric sighed. James Dillon was broken. He was the sheep that no longer tried to scale the fence, only grazed peacefully on the bland dry grass in the paddock and waited for slaughter.
While he was thinking this his body had lifted him up and walked him over to Agatha’s rocking chair. She put down her half knitted scarf and looked up at him. She only ever looked at him that way: tight lipped, her hair pulled into a vicious bun. Sometimes he wondered, if he cut her bun off, whether the skin on her face would sag and fall off her skull.
‘How many nights must we go through the same thing? How many times must we learn the same lesson? Mmm?’ She was giving him free reign to speak, he could feel it, but he said nothing. Instead he used the brief freedom to scowl at her.
‘You were ever a stubborn boy, Cedric. But I am just as stubborn and luckily for you, not only do I have the power but I am also right and you are wrong. My way of life is the happiest way for all of us. I will remain persistent, and one day you will see the truth of it. One day, when you’re a wealthy lawyer – or perhaps Doctor or even politician, I haven’t decided yet – and when you have a big house and a beautiful wife and children. All of it will be because of me and you will thank me for it and be grateful. It is only unfortunate I’ll need to wait so long for your gratitude.
Fuck your gratitude you old whore!
‘Thankyou, mother, of course you’re right, as always,’ he said, an apologetic smile stretching his face.
Now it was her turn to scowl. ‘I’ve a mind to give you a stern punishment for that. In fact I think I will, but we should wait for the school holidays, so I needn’t be afraid of leaving marks.’
Once, when his father still had some fight left in him, they’d managed to communicate enough to organise a sort of mutiny against her. Mr. Dillon had even grabbed her around the neck with both hands at one point, but in the end the whole thing had been finished in under a minute. They had all filed into the kitchen and cut each other with knives while she watched, unflinching, until the effort of it had leeched her anger away. All of them still got nightmares about that. In fact Cedric was convinced that had something to do with her as well – her reaching into their dreams and warping them to her purposes. There was no escape.
‘Yes mother.’ She gave him a funny look. She hadn’t made him say the words, this time, and neither was she forcing the smile on his face now.
‘Perhaps you will learn, after all,’ she said. ‘But all for another day. Bed now.’
‘Yes mother,’ he said again, and his body took him upstairs, his hands brushing his teeth too hard, mechanically, and changing him into his pyjamas.
He had a room on his own now, the two girls sharing bunk beds in the next one over, and once he was lying face up in the darkness, eyes shut, he was perfectly alone. Usually it stayed like this all night: his body stuck in the same stiff position, motionless until morning. An itchy nose or an exposed foot could keep him up all night, but exhaustion almost always won over in the end. Tonight, however, was different.
It happened late, well after midnight, though he couldn’t be sure. Something woke him up – a sense of… relaxation. She’s asleep, he thought. He’d felt it only once before a few months ago, and when it happened then he’d fought her viciously, pushing off the covers and trying to throw himself out of the window. She’d woken up and regained control in seconds, and they’d been up the rest of the night. The punishment for that attempt had been the worst he’d ever suffered at her hands.
This time, he didn’t fight. Instead he gave her a kind of mental nudge, and wriggled the fingers on his right hand. Nothing. No resistance. He did the same with his left and got the same result. Adrenaline rushed into him and he forced himself to calm down. After years of fighting to get out from under his mother’s thumb, Cedric had no shortage of willpower.
After an hour, he was sitting up in bed and making, slow, easy movements with his arms and legs. The idea, he figured, was not to surprise her. He would push her aside just as he was now pushing aside his blanket, letting her roll away without any sudden movements. It was incredible he’d got this far – how much further would he push it? All the way, he thought. I’m going to push it all the way.
Another hour passed but it was still the dead of the night when he was on his feet beside the bed. The air was ice cold but his movements were unhindered, unwatched – he was free! He shivered. How long would it last? And what could he do? What should he do?
But he had no idea how his father would react. He hadn’t known his true father for years, only the happy puppet his mother paraded about the house. For all he knew he’d collapse in grief and then call the police. Or even murder him for revenge.
So what, Run? There’s nowhere to go, and for all you know distance makes no difference. After all, she can still control you at school. Maybe she’ll just turn you around in the morning and march you right back home.
Kill her. It’s the only way.
His inner voice whispered these thoughts to him as he tiptoed out of his room and downstairs to the kitchen. He was being quiet, but he wasn’t so much worried about making noise – but about setting off some unseen tripwire. He’d spent years trying to work out exactly what her powers were, but he was sure he didn’t know even half of her tricks. If he walked into the wrong room she might wake up suddenly, a silent alarm ringing loud in her mind. But if that was the case, surely she would have woken up as soon as he left his room?
He cocked his head outside his parents’ bedroom door and listened. Only soft breathing, no movement. Not that she’d need to get out of bed to bring him to heel anyway – and he was still free. He smiled and started down the stairs.
A glance out of the ground floor window, along with the still bright embers of the fire, told him there was plenty of time before dawn. He resolved to take his time, moving as slowly as possible and keeping his eyes half closed all the while, his mind relaxed. If she stirred in her sleep and checked on him, perhaps he could trick her with his thoughts into thinking he was still asleep. While he lifted a knife from the rack by the sink he was visualising himself in bed, thinking of the soft covers and warmth, trying to make his thoughts fragmented and dream like.
It took him another hour to reach the bedroom door with the knife, and still she had not woken. He was drenched in icy sweat now, his whole body tense. This door had to be it: the alarm that would wake her up. He closed his fist around the knob and turned it, slowly. The door swung open, creaking a hundred times louder in the silence and tension. The lumps in the bed didn’t stir.
The smell of varnished wood hit him, stronger than in the rest of the house, and also the mothball stench that seemed to follow her around wherever she was. It made his head dizzy.
He stepped into the room, taking infinite care with every step, until he was right by her bedside. He could see his father’s blank face beside her. She was lying on her back, blanket drawn up to her neck, breathing slowly.
Cedric brought the knife up and stared at it, hypnotised for the moment at the way it shone with moonlight. The leafy oaks outside the window swayed in the wind, masking his sigh. This was it, as close as any of them had ever come – probably as close as they ever would come. It was all up to him.
He leaned over her, knife poised just above her chest, and took a deep breath. He wanted to say something, some final, bitter goodbye, but it might wake her up in time. He was risking enough as it was. It was time to finish it.
He pushed down on the knife. Nothing happened. It stayed exactly where it was, poised just a couple of feet above her. He pushed again, even resting some of his weight on the back of it, but it was as though he were trying to push the blade through solid steel.
That was when her eyes opened.
Cedric stopped pushing and stared into them, and in those moments his body and mind paused save a single, all-encompassing terror: I’m dead.
He still fought her, at the end, and to his credit he managed to slow her down. The knife turned, inexorably, but instead of turning with it his wrists stayed where they were and the bones in them snapped one by one as the knife performed a full one eighty to look him in the eye.
He could have lifted a car with the strength he exerted to fight her, but her power was not physical in the first place and the blade approached his right pupil, wrists bent at obscene angles. When it pierced his cornea, he didn’t stop fighting, but a centimetre later his mind was lost in a lake of pain and his only desire was for it all to end. He gave in.
*** *** ***
James Dillon woke up as the bright rays of dawn shone in through the window. Agatha had already been up and opened it, and the breeze hit his face, bringing coolness and country fragrances that never failed to cheer him up, however short lived the feeling was. He got dressed and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.
He always treasured these few moments of freedom afforded him. As time went, he noticed Agatha’s grip loosening somewhat, especially with all the recent spats she’d had with Cedric. As long as he did what he knew he was supposed to do, she’d let him get on with it. He made sure to comb his hair and clean his teeth.
Downstairs, the others were gathered around eating breakfast, Agatha at the head of the table as usual. He kissed her on the cheek and sat down. He smiled at everyone, and they smiled back.
It was bright and cheerful as usual, and only when James looked across at Cedric did his smile falter for the first time. Luckily, he regained it before Agatha could glare at him.
Cedric’s eye was a bloody mess, and it was very fresh by the looks of it. Must have happened during the night at some point. The left side of his face was a mess of black, gummy blood. ‘Hello father,’ he said. ‘Awake at last?’
‘Yes… Did you sleep well?’
He glanced sideways at the two girls, but they were oblivious to the exchange, delicately spooning food into their mouths with their usual ladylike grace. Today, though, the image was ruined by the huge red gashes along their throats, where the blood had not yet dried.
Colleen turned to look at him with vacant eyes were her sad ones had once been, and she opened her mouth to say something but blood spilled out instead of words.
After breakfast, James’s body took him upstairs to the study to begin the day’s work, and as he sat down in front of his great desk by the window he heard Agatha talking to the kids. ‘Best get cleaning now, hadn’t you? Just a few chores to get done and then you can enjoy yourselves for a little while before school starts.’
‘But mother,’ Janet said in an uncharacteristically scratchy voice, ‘School starts at nine.’
‘No, dear, not anymore. I’ve decided to home school you from now on. Much better for all round education. Teachers these days will put all kinds of nonsense into your brains.’
‘Ooh, that sounds fun.’
‘Can we go for a walk out in the woods today, mother?’ Cedric said.
‘Yes. Yes I don’t see why not. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Ah, well, get to work now. Looks like we’ve got a big day ahead of us, and your father will want dinner when he’s finished with work.’
Yes, James thought, his hand reaching down by itself to turn on his computer. They had a big day ahead of them alright. A big, busy day.