Pulp.net - Out of Her Mind

The Online Home of New Fiction

November 2008

Danuta Reah
Words on a page, black print on white. Words on a screen, black print on a flickering monitor, safe, contained. He’s the dark shape in the night,

the soft footsteps that follow in the darkness, sealed away as the book is closed, fragmenting into nothing as the screen shuts down into blackness.

But now he’s seeping around the sides of the screen, bleeding off the edges of the paper….

The room is empty. The light reflects from the walls, glints on the metal of the lamp. The screensaver dances, flowers and butterflies, over and over.

• • •

The summer heat was oppressive. Laura looked out of her window. The small patch of ground behind the house was scorched and wilting, and over the fence, the buddleia that grew in the alleyway drooped, its purple flowers brown at the tips.

The air was still and dry. The louvers were open, but the wind chimes she had put there at the beginning of the summer hung motionless. She tapped them with her finger, the gentle reverberation giving her the illusion of coolness.

‘You going to sit there all day?’

Laura jumped and turned round quickly. It was David.

‘You going to be sitting in front of that thing all day?’ He resented the hours she spent in front of the screen.

‘I was just…’ She gestured towards the monitor where the screen saver danced in a pattern of butterflies. ‘It won’t come right. I need to…” She couldn’t explain, but she knew she needed to keep on writing.

He was impatient. ‘It’s beautiful out there. I’m not going to be stuck in on a day like this. I’m going out. Are you coming?’

She looked round the room. Her study was stark with its north facing window and bare walls. Her desk was tucked away in a corner. It was quiet. It used to be safe. ‘I have to go on. I can’t leave it now.’ And she couldn’t.

‘You aren’t doing anything. You’re just staring out of the window. Can’t you make an effort, pretend you want my company once in a while? I might as well be married to a machine.’ He was angry and frustrated. It was summer, a glorious summer’s day, and Laura just wanted to sit in her study, staring at the white flicker of the screen, tap tapping her fantasy world into its electronic soul.

You married a writer, she wanted to say. That was the deal. But there was no point. He didn’t want to hear it.

‘I’m going.’ He slammed out of the room, out of the house, doors opening and closing with noisy violence. Laura let the silence close in on her, then turned back to her desk. Her hand hovered over the mouse for a second, then she pushed it, and the screen saver cleared.

• • •

Writing running down the screen. Just words on a page. And then a shadow when the house is empty, a footstep in the corridor, the creak of someone outside the door.

It’s nothing. It’s imagination. He’s always been there, the monster under the bed, the bogey man in the cellar. Just a shadow to frighten children in the night.

Only the footsteps are gone now. There is no monster under the bed, no bogey man in the cellar. He used to live in Laura’s mind, live on her screen, in the pages she writes. He used to hide behind the butterflies and the flowers of the screensaver. But now he’s gone. He’s escaped. He’s somewhere else.

The butterflies used to dance on the buddleia, but now the flowers are dying and the butterflies have gone.

• • •

Laura was in the supermarket. While David was out, she could surprise him. Look, I did the shopping! He hated shopping. Mechanically, she took stuff off the shelves, loaded it into the trolley, a bag of salad, bread, eggs, milk, bacon. Something was tugging at the back of her mind. She could see the patterns on the screensaver moving and dancing. Waiting. She shouldn’t have left. She had to hurry, she had to get back.

The supermarket aisles were long and well lit with rows of shiny tins and boxes reflecting the light into her eyes. Reds and yellows and greens, primary colours, nursery colours. The trolley had a red plastic handle and bars of aluminium and the boxes and bottles and tins on the shelves flickered as the bars ran past them, like the flicker of the words on the screen.

The aisles were long and straight. Laura pushed the trolley faster and faster past each one. Biscuits and cakes. Tinned fruit and vegetables. Soaps and cleaning stuff.

And a movement at the far end of the aisle.

She squinted but the light reflected off the tins and the bottles, reflected off the shiny floor. She screwed her eyes up, but she couldn’t see it properly. It had been – just a flicker, a silhouette moving quickly round the corner, out of view, out of sight.

She pushed her trolley into the next aisle, and her foot slipped in something sticky, something viscous, something that spattered across the shelves and dripped onto the floor, red, dark, drip, drip, pooling round her feet in abstract patterns.

She stopped, frozen, half-hearing the voices: ‘Look out, someone’s dropped a bottle of wine… better be careful… mind the glass…. get a…’

She pushed past, the wheels of her trolley smearing through the red and leaving a trail on the floor behind her. “Hey!” But the voices didn’t matter. She had to get back.

The queue snaked away from the checkout. She pushed her trolley to the front. “Sorry, so sorry…” as people stepped back, frowning, puzzled, too polite to object. She didn’t have time to queue. She fed her purchases through and dug in her bag for her purse as the checkout girl drummed her fingers on the till and the queue stirred restlessly behind her.

‘…with a filleting knife.’

She blinked. It was the girl sitting at the till, her face hostile and blank. ‘What?’

‘Forty five. Forty five pounds. …Did he slash her?’


The eyes rolled in exasperation. ‘D’you want any cash back?’

‘Oh. No.’

The car park dazzled in the sun, the concrete hot under her feet, the metallic paint of the cars sending shards of light into her eyes.

• • •

Night time. He walks the streets, he waits in the dark places. A silk scarf whispers between his fingers. It’s light and gauzy, patterned with flowers and butterflies. It’s smooth and strong. He has something else in his hand. It’s long and thin and sharp. It glints where the light catches it.

Someone is coming. The sound drifts around the roadway, loses itself in the darkness, in the wind that rustles the tops of the trees. It’s what he’s been waiting for, tap, tap the sound of heels on the pavement, like the sound of fingers on a keyboard, like the sound of knuckles against the door. Tap, tap, tap. And then there will be the other sound, the sound that only the two of them will hear, the sound behind her in the darkness … the soft fall of footsteps, almost silent, lifted and placed, carefully but quickly, moving through the night.

• • •

The heatwave broke two days later. In the morning, the sky was cloudless, the shadows sharp as a knife on the walls and on the pavements. The buddleia, parched, drooped down, the petals falling into the dust. Laura sat at the table crumbling a piece of toast between her fingers. The sun reflected off the polished surfaces, off the steel of the cutlery, the spoons, the knives.

David sat opposite her, immersed in the paper he held up in front of his face. Laura stared at the print, black on white, like words on a screen, words that would blur and vanish behind the moving patterns of flowers and butterflies.

‘Maniac.’ David closed the paper and tossed it onto the table.

Laura looked at the crumpled sheets. woman…knife attack. She grabbed it and smoothed the page out, her hands moving in frantic haste.

woman killed in knife attack. It had been the previous night, in the car park, in the supermarket car park. The woman must have walked across the concrete that was still warm from the sun, her heels tapping briskly, the streetlights shining on her hair. Walking tap, tap, tap like writing on a keyboard towards the shadows where the trees started, the trees that whispered in the night.

She went to her room and switched on her machine. Her hands hovered over the keyboard and then began to move. Tap, tap, tap. The words appeared on the screen, filled it, scrolled down and down as her hands flew over the keys. She wrote and deleted, wrote and deleted, and each time, a woman walked into the darkness where gauze and flowers and butterflies fluttered in the wind. And the light glinted on something in the shadows, just for a moment.

The day greyed over as the clouds rolled in. The air cooled, became chill. Laura typed, deleted, typed again.

‘Still at it? You’ve been here all day.’

She jumped and turned round.

It was David trying hard to be patient. ‘I’ve made tea.’

‘Thanks.’ She wasn’t hungry, but…. ‘Thanks.’

He’d made egg and chips. The chips lay pale and limp on the plate. The yolk of the egg trembled under its translucent membrane. She cut the chips into small pieces, pushed them into the egg, watched the bright yellow spill and spread over her plate.

‘Egg and chips not good enough for you any more?’ He was angry again. He’d made the effort and she didn’t appreciate it – didn’t appreciate him.

She couldn’t explain. She couldn’t tell him. ‘It’s fine. Egg and chips is fine. I’m just not hungry, that’s all.’

He grunted, but didn’t say anything. He was trying. He was making the effort. He shook the sauce bottle over his plate. Smack as he hit the base with the flat of his hand. She watched red spatter over the mountain of chips.


She shook her head. ‘Did you get a paper? Is there any more about…?’ About the murder.

‘No. Stupid cow, though. What did she expect, out on her own at that time?’

What had she expected? She saw the wine spilled on the supermarket floor, the drip, drip from the shelves, the bright red of the splashes. David lifted a chip to his mouth. Ketchup dropped onto the table, splat.

She had to get back.

• • •

The dark footprints cross the paving stones of the alleyway, prints that look black and shiny in the moonlight, growing fainter and fainter with each step until they fade to nothing.

It is starting to rain. The drops make black marks on the dry flags. The drops are big and heavy, splashing out as the rain falls harder and harder. The footsteps begin to blur, and a darker colour trickles across the ground with the rain that starts to run across the path, across the alleyway, running into a black pool that gleams in the shadows. And the puddles cloud as dark streaks mingle with the clear water, running thick and black then clearer and faster, into the gutters, the drains and away.

• • •

The next morning, the sky was Mediterranean blue. The sun blazed down, scorching away the freshness of the storm. The air was hot and dry. Laura’s fingers flew across the keys.

David was the doorway. ‘It’s been on the radio,” he said. His voice had the lift of excitement. “There’s been another.’

‘I know.’ She typed, the words spilling out of her fingers. She couldn’t stop now, she mustn’t stop. …and the rainwater ran across the paving stones…

‘Not the supermarket.’ David wanted her attention. He had information to pass on, exciting news, and he couldn’t wait to tell her. ‘In the alleyway, Laura. They found her in the alleyway. Right behind out house! Last night.’

I know. But she couldn’t say it.

• • •

Three a.m. Something wakes her. She lies very still and listens. Silence. The wind whips the clouds across the moon. Light. Dark. Light. Dark. The curtains are pulled back and the garden is caves of shadow. The trees rock and sway. The branches of the cotoneaster scrape across the window. Tap. Tap. Tap. The alleyway is full of night.

• • •

David had been out all day, came back to find Laura at her desk, the dishes unwashed, the fridge empty.

He looked at the screen. ‘Nothing. You’ve done nothing. Sitting there all day. I can’t do it all.’

Sorry. I’m sorry. But she couldn’t say it.

Later, he relented. ‘I’ve made you a sandwich.’

She couldn’t choke it down.

‘There’s no pleasing you!’

She flinched as his hand brushed against hers.

His eyes were cold. ‘Out. I’m going out. If you want to know.’

She couldn’t worry about that now, couldn’t let it distract her. Nothing else mattered now. She had to get back to her desk, back to her screen.

In the distance, she heard the door slam.

• • •

Laura sat in her study. The rain had started falling hours ago, and David had not come back. She read the words that filled the screen. She scrolled down, read. Her fingers tap tapped on the desk. She looked through her window. Now, it was dark outside, the back garden, and the fence, and the alleyway all in shadow.

She went out into the corridor and opened the hall cupboard. The corridor was painted white, the walls satin, the doors gloss. The floor was polished. The light reflected into her eyes.

She opened the cupboard. She drummed her fingers, tap, tap against the door. She took off her slippers, and put on a pair of black shoes, strappy, with very high heels. She had to fiddle with the fastenings for a few minutes. She stood up, tall and straight. She put on her coat, a mac, light and summery. It would be no protection against the rain. She threw a scarf, a summer scarf, thin and gauzy, round her neck. Then she walked to the door. Her heels tap, tap, tapped on the lino.

• • •

The street is long and straight, deep shadows and pools of light under the streetlamps, light that glints off the water as it runs down the gutters. And between the light, dark shadows. The rain drips off the trees. Dark and then light. Dark and then light.

I can’t find you any more!

She walks on. She knows he will come. He has to.

Her feet tap tap on the pavement, moving quickly from light to light. And then she hears it. The sound of soft footsteps behind her, moving fast, moving closer.

Something glints in the darkness. Something blows in the wind, gauze and butterflies and flowers.

• • •

David gets home late. As comes through the gate, he sees a curtain twitch in the house next door. He hesitates, then walks up the path. His own front door is open. He can hear it banging as the wind blows. He catches it before it can swing shut again, stands for a moment, listening. He looks at the window where the curtain moved. “Laura?” he calls, and again, more loudly. “Laura?” Then he closes the door quietly behind him.

The house is silent.

He goes to Laura’s study. The screen flickers, the flowers and butterflies locked in their perpetual dance. He banishes them with a touch, and looks at the screen, looks at what Laura was writing, looks at the words that scroll down the screen.

The street was long and straight, with pools of light under the streetlamps, light that glinted off the water as it ran down the gutters. And between the light, dark shadows. The rain dripped off the trees….

I can’t find you any more!

And then, over and over: No, no, no, no… down the screen. Down and down, no, no way, no way, no way. No..w no..w now now now.

He reaches out and presses a key. The writing jumps, fades, is gone.

The black screen faces him.

He smiles.

© Danuta Reah 2004