Snakes And Ladders by Austin Lee
Last time there was death in the family it was a murder. Herbert's mother-in-law was dead, it was not clear to him how she had expired. He could see the congealed blood on the kitchen floor that had pooled beside her head. The home was so clean and tidy that her body was such a aberration. It lay on the tiled floor broken, bent and sprawled. Herbert was aware, as the last person to see her alive that the police investigation would focus upon him.
Outside, sporadic traffic passed by the window and chaffinches flitted about. Her washing fluttered in the early morning sun. Every detail of the scene was stored by Herbert's brain. Every colour appeared vibrant and threatening. Only one blue eye was visible as the corpse cooled, it stared accusingly at bloody mess beside it. How long had she laid there? Herbert mused that it could not have been so long, still it felt as if she was still judging him and willing the glassy eye to follow Herbert's every move around her home.
Needing time to think, he decided to not call his wife. Maybe he could sneak out unnoticed,
the nosey neighbours could still be eating breakfast, watching Sky News or both. If they did spot him that would be damning evidence, he could not risk it. Locking the outside kitchen door from the outside. Herbert hatched a plan.
Turning off his phone, this was no time to receive a call. Soon Danielle would ringing her mother on the land line. The routine of the day, checking in, clucking away and checking out. Then the call to his mother-in-law's mobile phone and then the panicky text and then his wife would reach out to him. It was a nightmare; being in constant contact. Herbert did not want a phone, did not want use one and did not want to admit his wife insisted that he have one.
Climbing up the loft ladder, he felt the chill from the space above enter the landing. Herbert pulled up the extending ladder back into the loft and switched on the single bulb hanging from a rafter. Like her home, even the detritus of life was tidy. Cardboard boxes were marked, parked and without excess dust, perhaps she used to hoover up here every couple of week. As Herbert thought about Candice he remembered why he did not ever warm to the woman. She was mean, mean minded with never a good word to say about anyone, apart to their face. Danielle had suffered a mental episode two years ago, what used to be termed a breakdown. Things just got on top of her. Carl was killed by a overdose of drugs, her brother, then her father was stabbed to death by assailant unknown in the space of eighteen months. Plenty of reason to push the most stable of people over the edge. Candice made the right noises about Danielle, although it was clear to Herbert that she did not offer any real support as she thought that if anyone deserved sympathy, it was her.
Candice had been given support, empathy and sympathy. She had milked it like a mechanical teat. Sucking without thinking of others. A cold woman who's mantra was: what would people say. Quite who these other people were, only she knew. Herbert and Danielle had struggled to pay the bills since she had not been able to work. Not once did his mother-in-law offer to help them. They had sold their car and lived off Iceland food. Not a Sunday lunch, baked cake or biscuit was offered, just weak tea, insipid chat and moans about her rather comfortable life.
Up until his death Carl had lived with his mother. There was no limits to what she would do for him. Of course Candice grumbled to Danielle about the cost of supplying the cash to buy his drugs. Unlike the pills he took, the money given away whilst they struggled was hard to swallow.
Still Danielle loved her mother and wanted to be a good daughter. Herbert viewed this behaviour quite differently. He saw it as unfair. And his resentment grew and grew. Danielle was fragile and took her frustrations out on Herbert. He could do nothing right, everything was dissected and fault fell at his feet.
Herbert sat on top of a box that crumpled slightly as it took his weight. Something moved, it was to his left. Just in the peripheral vision, a blur. He dismissed it, probably a mouse. Then it happened again rather louder, clearer and visible. It looked reptilian, a pair of green-black eyes peered from behind a black plastic bag. Another noise broke his stare. Herbert turned around to see a tail disappear behind a upturned edge of insulation. Herbert jumped up in horror and quickly realised that sitting it out in the loft had no been his best idea. The path to the ladder was clear, if he could get to it. Something made him look up as he crouched to miss the rafters. Scores of unblinking eyes, judging, searing and waiting for him for him to bolt. The coiled dark scales of the sentry snake around the extending ladder meant Herbert was going nowhere.
They are not there. They cannot be. It is just my brain tricking my eyes. Herbert sat back on the crumpled box and began to sob. His tears felt enormous, emissions from a pustule, thick and globular. They stuck to his face and could not be wiped away. The eyes mocked him and challenged him to stand. Around his feet they now slithered, around his ankles, scores of tails flicked in the rafters.
The voices had been quiet for so long and now they screamed, wanting his full attention. Everything hurt. His muscles, eyes and deep into his marrow, the pain pinged electric sharp.
“There is a way...you know there is!”
Herbert took out his phone and knew there was no point in ringing Danielle. She would never answer again. The rope was over the rafter ready to fall into landing.