Bloody Parchmentby SA Partridge

3rd place

The world outside the window was expectant. A black cat streaked across the gutter onto the roof, stopping only for the tiniest second to shine its yellow eyes into the room before darting away. Rain was threatening. The greens were brighter, the rough red bricks of the neighbouring apartment block more stark. In the distance, Table Mountain loomed. A neat row of ants marched through a crack in the wall, seeking shelter. The whole world seemed to be in on a secret. Anton was good at keeping secrets.

He watched, noticed things. How someone would turn around and look behind them as they walked. The child that took something that didn’t belong to them when they thought no one else was looking. From his window on the fourth floor, he saw everything. When the rain began to spit against the glass, he sighed and turned away. His vigil was over. The rain sounded like hundreds of fingertips tapping at his window and drowned out the sound of mice devouring the floorboards.

Anton shared the apartment with Jessica. Loud, messy, haphazard, pretty Jess. She could win his forgiveness for her failings with just one look from her big brown eyes. They only ever ran into each other when their mealtimes coincided, and her appearance would always surprise him. Not because he wasn’t expecting her, but because the way she looked kept changing. One day she would be blonde, the next a brunette with shadowy eyes. The only constant was her eyes. They were his favourite part of her, and if he had to pick a word to describe them it would be mahogany, deep and rich like the wood.

They didn’t mind each other. The flat was cheap, and falling apart, so neither of them felt obliged to keep it clean. This suited Jessica, whose lifestyle was rather anarchic. She was hardly around to see it most of the time and when she was in she spent most of her time in her room listening to music. She loved music. Anton, whose life was far simpler and less chaotic, didn’t mind either way, as long as she was in it.

As soon as the rain came, the sky darkened, bringing with it early night. Anton put the kettle on. It would be his seventeenth cup of coffee since Jessica had last been home, four days ago. Above him, the fluorescent bulb flickered.

It wasn’t like her to disappear. For all her irregular coming and going, she was a habitual lover of her own bed, despite its old stains and lumpiness. He thought about the last time he had seen her, dressed in cut-off shorts and a mesh top, about to go out to see a new band.

“Don’t wait up for me,” she said, half-way out the door.

“I won’t.”

“You will anyway, and I wish you wouldn’t. I’ll be fine.”

He put his cup away and decided he’d wait a while before taking up the count again. A street light blinked to life outside the kitchen window, making him jump, and he moved to the battered couch.

If he had fallen asleep, he didn’t remember doing so. He was sitting on the couch facing the door, which was still locked on the inside. Had he been waiting up late again? The room smelled damp from the window being open all night, and the sharpness of the cold stung his nose. He didn’t get up.

It was going to be a cloudy, miserable day, day five of his lonely vigil, but he clung to the hope that she would return. She always did. He cast a wary eye around the apartment, at the mildewed walls, and towers of dishes building on the kitchen counter. He would have to clean it all up sooner or later. The thought didn’t stir him to action. He was pining, spending his days staring out of the window. Moving away meant that he might miss something vital, something he hadn’t noticed before. The thought made him shudder.

He stretched widely, but stopped mid-yawn, startled by the unmistakable squeak of bedsprings. Jessica’s bed was ancient, yet she refused to invest in a new one. Every time she sat down on it or got up, the strain of the bedsprings could be heard from any room in the apartment. He waited, but heard nothing more.

Anton rose and took a few furtive steps towards Jessica’s room. Her door was closed and her toxic green “keep out” sign glared at him warningly. He shot a glance towards the front door. The key was still on the inside where he had left it.

He inched forward and closed his hand around the door handle. It felt cold and stiff, but that meant nothing. He opened the door, which moaned like everything else in the apartment.

She was there, sitting on her bed with her head bowed. Her hair hung loose and ragged, like unraveled rope. The curtains were closed, giving the room a murky quality, as if everything in it was underwater.

“Jessica?” he asked tentatively.

She lifted her head slowly, and once again, her appearance took him aback. Her eyes were swollen with tears and underlined with dark rings. Her bottom lip trembled.

“What happened?” he asked, taking a few cautious steps towards her.

She shook her head frantically, lifting her face to meet his gaze.

“I don’t know. I shouldn’t be here. This is all messed up.”

“What do you mean? You live here. What’s wrong?”

Again, she shook her head, and one hand travelled into her hair to grip the roots.

Anton took another step forward and for a moment, she looked panicked.

“Don’t,” she said, and then she was gone.

He stared at the empty bed for a few moments as her words resounded in his mind. After about two minutes of this, he realised that for the first time since he had heaved the monstrosity up four flights of stairs, the bed hadn’t squeaked. With that thought, he went back to the living room, closing the door carefully behind him.

Jessica didn’t appear again until the following week. Anton had been grocery shopping, a task he performed with the same mathematical efficiency that he adopted in every other aspect of his life. Coffee, twelve oranges, toothpaste, newspaper, milk. He counted the oranges out into a bowl and arranged it so that he could make out all twelve with one glance. By midday, there were eleven oranges in the bowl. He upended the pungent spheres on to the counter, and counted, twice. There were still eleven.

He opened Jessica’s door to find her lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. Orange pulp and rinds littered the floor, and the room was alive with a fresh citrus haze, as if she had spritzed the juice into the air.

She turned towards him as he entered.

“I can peel it, but I can’t eat it,” she said miserably.

He stared at the ruined fruit all over the floor.

“You seemed to have killed it,” he said.

She frowned at his poor attempt at humour.

“I can try and make you some soup,” he said.

“Won’t work. It will just end up on the floor,” she said bitterly.

“What happened to you?” he asked. She ignored his eyes, and stared up at the ceiling.

“I keep coming back here. Sometimes I’m at the pier, and sometimes I’m nowhere,” she sighed.

“The pier?” he asked.

“I remember being at the club listening to the band play. The music was just lovely and I left shortly after they finished. I still had my beer in my hand, and I walked to the pier. That’s all I remember. I don’t even know why I was there.”

She looked thoroughly miserable, and Anton felt useless and awkward. He wrung his hands. He opened his mouth to speak then closed it again. He could never think of the right thing to say in front of her.

She didn’t speak again but disappeared once more, like a hologram blinking out, and he spent an unhappy hour cleaning orange pulp off the walls and floor, all the while thinking of something he could say when she returned.

As the cold isolation of winter drifted to other parts of the world, paving the way for the warmth of spring, Anton felt like he was losing his grip on his secret. People began to emerge from their nests as the sun came out, feeling the need to socialise. Jessica’s disappearance became pronounced as her friends sprung out of hibernation, wanting to invite her to the beach and cocktail bars. These visitors were like an ever-present buzzing in his ears. Keeping them away was a full-time job.

She only appeared once during all this hubbub. Anton had just closed the door on yet another faceless friend looking for information, when she strode into the kitchen.

“Who was that?” she asked.

“Someone looking for work,” he said quickly, pleasantly surprised to see her outside her bedroom.

“It’s amazing how they get in here,” she said, rattling the coffee tin. “Oh god, I love the smell of coffee. Won’t you have some?”

“Of course.”

She moved aside so he could busy himself at the counter, measuring four heaped spoons of ground coffee into a cup. He knew it was going to taste awful. He smiled at her warmly, then turned back to the task. He hadn’t looked at her properly since her return. She was still wearing the cut-off shorts and the mesh top from the night she had disappeared, but in the light he could see that her face had changed slightly. Her eyes were deeper, darker. He didn’t stare into them for too long.

She leaned over his shoulder to take a long sniff of his coffee.

“That’s going to taste like tar,” she said happily.

He took a sip, and coughed.

“This place needs more pot-plants,” she announced suddenly, looking around.


“And wind chimes.”

“No problem.”

She beamed at him, and twirled around back to her room. She only came back a month later, once all the changes she wanted were in place. He had purchased little ceramic pots for each corner of the apartment, and placed a different plant in each one. Despite having no artistic talent, he painted the wind chimes himself in bright colours and patterns, and hung them over the door, and at every window. With the remaining paint he decorated the ceramic pots with little flowers and stars. When he was done exploring this newfound creative streak, the apartment blazed with colour. He even cleaned up some of the mess, although there was nothing he could do about the damp that was creeping up the walls at an alarming rate, despite the weather. He put it out of his mind.

In the past, he had spoken to Jessica maybe once, twice a week, and only about trivialities, like the electricity bill. Now, they were beginning to develop a proper relationship, and he delighted in the little things she did, like poking at a wind chime, or the way she was learning to anticipate his peculiar habits. He felt understood for the first time, as if someone had entered his world and didn’t want to run away screaming. All their interaction took place in the apartment, but he didn’t care. The outside world couldn’t offer him as much joy as a single moment with her could.

Spring was good for one thing. He planted a little garden in the windowbox on the ledge outside the kitchen window, and it flourished. He planted fragrant lavender and sweet peas and in-between them, snowdrop lilies appeared of their own accord. The smells wafted in to the kitchen like perfume, although the latter flower didn’t bring with it the reaction that he had expected.

“These grow in graveyards,” Jessica said, crushing a lily between her pale fingers.

“I didn’t plant them, it’s just a weed,” he explained.

“That’s the point isn’t it? It knows.”

“What do you mean it knows?”

“Graveyard lilies, the rot. It doesn’t matter how much you paint over it its not going to change anything,” she said.

Anton had heard about the power of ghosts from books and films, but it was nothing like the real thing. He sought cover behind the couch as she hurled plates and bowls, creating a maelstrom of porcelain shards in the air. Glass shattered.

He stumbled with his words, unable to think of anything that would calm her fury. She screamed, a guttural wail that he was afraid could be heard in the entire apartment block.

“I hate it here!” she screamed, her eyes blazing as she hurled the toaster at the blackening wall.

She destroyed the entire window-ledge garden in seconds, pulling out a clump of lilies and smashing them. As a pipe burst below the sink, the soil and the water splashed  mud all over the kitchen floor. It was over within minutes, and then she left him there alone in the chaos.

He didn’t replenish the windowbox garden.

The police stopped investigating her disappearance at the same time as friends and family stopped knocking on his door. Anton knew that there was only so much they could do; Jess was one among hundreds of missing girls.

As autumn approached, Jess brooded. As the leaves crinkled and the air grew chill, her manifestations were becoming more frequent and would last longer. She’d sit on the couch and stare at the door, or out the window, for hours, unmoving. Anton delighted in her increased company.

They sat together on the kitchen counter, staring at the reddening sky through the window. It was twilight, a time of day when the skeletal Autumn trees seemed to stand straining for that last breath of light before nightfall. It was Anton’s favourite time of the day, and for the first time in his life, he was able to share this with someone else. He smiled warmly at Jess, always careful to avoid her eyes, but she didn’t return the gesture. She was eyeing him appraisingly.

“I’ve been thinking about things,” she said.


“I’ve had a lot of time to think over the past months and I think I was looking for something more when I walked to the pier. That night I didn’t come home,” she said.

“Do you know what it was that you were looking for?” he asked.

“It was something in the music that made me realise there was something more out there, something that would transcend life and sadness. Like an answer to every question I’ve always wanted to ask.  I just knew that it would be there, and everything would be alright.”

“But it wasn’t?”

“No, it wasn’t. I’m still stuck here, in this flat. I didn’t understand that at first and its something I’ve been thinking about for a while now.”

Anton usually avoided all mention of Jessica’s disappearance because it upset her and caused her to vanish for days on end.  He chewed on his words before answering.

“Have you come up with anything?” he asked, wishing he could take her hand.

“Yeah, I think so. I think I was supposed to come find you,” she said.

It was the last thing he expected her to say and he repeated it in his head a few times, as if trying to find a different meaning in her words.

“What do you mean?”

“I think you’re supposed to come with me, wherever it is I’m going.”

“And you know that for certain, that if I go with you, to wherever it is we’re going, we are going to find this answer, or whatever it is we are supposed to find?”

“Yes,” she said without hesitation.

Anton opened his mouth to reply, then stopped. What was he going to say? That he wasn’t ready? His breathe caught in his chest and he looked towards Table Mountain in the distance so that he could focus his eyes on something else.

“You want me to go with you?” he asked tentatively.

“Of course I want you to go with me, Anty. It’s always been you and me,” she said with uncharacteristic sweetness.

“Do you think you could love me?” he asked.

“Perhaps. Besides, we’ll have forever to find out.”

He grinned, and balled his fists. He had never felt so happy in his entire life.

“Now?” he asked. She nodded, like she was spurring on a child.

Prompted by Jess who remained sitting on the kitchen counter swinging her legs back and forth, Anton crawled to the edge of the window. He felt giddy and elated at the same time, a feeling he had been deprived of his whole life.  The mountain was totally obscured by darkness and for an instant, he regretted not being able to say goodbye. Like a child leaning over a pool too deep for him, he looked down. He couldn’t see the bottom. He dived.

Inside the apartment, the door with the toxic green warning swung closed. The music began.

Copyright © 2010 by SA Partridge
Something Wicked has no affiliation with Bloody Parchment, please direct all queries to the official Bloody Parchment website
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