Aphelion Issue 245, Volume 23
November 2019
 
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We Belong Together

by S.J. Budd




Dan had been the first and only client to have asked her name. She’d chosen Sophie. It was a nice name. She wanted to be nice now.

Sophie wouldn’t be going back to sleep that night. It was 2:49 a.m., five empty hours until a new morning. Worries had a way of worming in and stealing sleep away. But she had a plan.

It had to work. She needed it to. They all needed it to, even though they didn’t know it. They were all locked in Sophie’s web of danger.

Somewhere in between being kicked out of her family home at 16 and now, she had gotten mixed up in things she would have otherwise left alone. Things she daren’t tell anyone. But if this worked, she’d have a new chance. Right now her only obstacle was Ophelia.

Dan had taken the bait, since early May he’d been reluctant to let Ophelia out of his sight. He thought he was being the repentant protective father but he was getting on her nerves. Ophelia needed to breathe. He’d gone away for the weekend with work and had left Sophie in charge. She knew she had to act fast.

It had been easy for him to fall under Sophie’s charms, but he wasn’t getting a bad deal out of it. After what had happened to him, they needed each other. He needed Sophie to take care of Ophelia and Sophie needed him to take care of her. She could learn to love him after a time, the kid was alright too. But Sophie couldn’t use the same charms on Ophelia that had so easily swayed her father.

Dan had met Sophie in a strip club, just at the right time. She was in trouble which was escalating like a black maelstrom of calculating menace. She owed money and favours to the wrong sorts of people whom she’d never be able to pay back. Dan was her way out, he offered her sanctuary, he even went as far as offering her his heart. Unfortunately she did not have one to give in return.

But Dan was a good man, eager to please, desperate for a woman. His career had left very little time for a lasting romance. Sophie had been living at his house for just over three months in the sleepy village of Brae situated nicely in the commuter belt of Kent. It would take time to adjust to living somewhere so remote and, frankly dull, but within the village borders she had begun to heal. It was a tempestuous process that had brought up old hurts and memories, even more so with the arrival of Ophelia who also had her own private story.

Sophie saw how quiet Ophelia was, pensive and withdrawn. Dan mistook it as contentment but Sophie knew it was something else, she was in pain and frightened. It was vital for them to get along if they were to help each other.

It was their first night alone together; Sophie had allowed Ophelia to pick a movie and had supplied huge quantities of toffee popcorn, her favourite. Ophelia seldom spoke. That evening she sat all silent and stiff in front of the TV but she hadn’t run off. It was progress.

Sophie knew not to take it personally; she saw her new situation as a new job. Ophelia was too young to realise she was being hurtful. It wasn’t her fault, it was her mother’s. Six months had passed and still no one knew what had really happened. Ophelia still didn’t want to speak of it, the memories were still too recent to be consigned to her past. She was hurting. Sophie couldn’t imagine what she’d been through.

What that poor little girl needed was a shopping trip. She had withdrawn all of Dan’s savings and was going to take Ophelia shopping on a grand scale.

They could get their hair done, nails coloured, and stop for lunch at a trendy restaurant up in London. It wouldn’t stop Ophelia hurting, but it was a start. It was their time to create new happy memories.

A tugging feeling of lost hope kept diving into her mood, but if Dan returned to find them laughing and joking he would be hers forever. It could be the tipping point, he might ask her to marry him.

Everything Ophelia owned and wore was tired and faded. It fell to Sophie to put things right. Dan would be, in time, a wonderful father but mothers always knew best. They guarded their babes fiercely with unrelenting force, any threat to their beloveds were an enemy that needed eradicating.

Nothing could go wrong this weekend, Sophie reminded herself. She decided to check on Ophelia. That’s what good mothers did. It was Sophie’s job now to be a mother, sure beat stripping.

Sophie padded down the hallway to the end where Ophelia now slept. It used to be an office. The door opened with a quiet, sleepy squeal. Inside was silence punctuated with soft sighs. Sophie smiled and leant against the doorway, her insides felt warm. It was unexpected but she couldn’t afford to lose her head. She had a feeling this was a battle she would lose.

I could really love this girl.

Taking advantage of the young girl’s sleeping state Sophie was able to take in the sweet little child and see just how lovely she was. By day she was timid and hidden like a feral cat reluctant to accept and give affection. Now, her hair lay sprawled over her quiet, thoughtful face.

It occurred to Sophie that something was not quite right with the picture. She turned slowly. There it was. On the window sill, facing out into the street was a glowing black candle. Sophie cursed softly and moved quickly to extinguish the renegade flame. It was exactly these sorts of scenarios that could spell ruin and disaster for their weekend. Just as well she found it before the curtains and rest of the room caught fire. Her instincts had been spot-on in checking on her. In the future, she would trust them more.

She held the candle in her hand as she came back out into the hallway. It stank to high heaven, and she contemplated throwing it out but it might hold some sentimental value to Ophelia. Maybe it reminded her of her mother.

Sophie had broken the cardinal rule of hating your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend for no other reason that they might have cast a lingering spell over him. Sophie only pitied Jennie. It was hard not to. She’d been committed under the Mental Health Act and subsequently lost custody of her only child. Dan hadn’t had the faintest idea that he was a father until that phone call six months ago.

Her room seemed dark when she slipped back in and got back into the huge, empty bed. She tried to close her eyes but there was that persistent, tugging feeling of doubt again. Something still wasn’t right.

Sophie trembled and stared at the door of her room. Hearing no sound she crept around the bed and peered out listening for any irregular sounds.

In the hall, she went to the window, the curtains danced with grace guided by the soft breeze rolling in from outside. She pulled the stubborn grinding window pane down and shivered. It was dark and cold outside. She looked through the window as she pulled the latch but saw nothing. Directly outside was a blind spot where the light from the streetlamp did not fall.

It wasn’t her that had opened the window.

Just to be sure she checked again on Ophelia. Her stomach clenched as she opened the door. The child was still sleeping, still safe and protected. This time she was snoring; it was so cute.

Sophie shook her head. It had been a busy week. She was finding it tough to be a stepmother and an ordinary citizen trying to blend in. It was proving harder than she had first anticipated. She consoled herself with the fact that it was a learning curve, she would be more careful in the future.

She crept into the small upstairs bathroom. The light remained off; Sophie knew that to turn it on now would hurt her eyes and fully wake her up. Man, she was tired now. She was ready to drop off but there was that tugging feeling again.

The toilet seat was warm.

She sat cautiously on the toilet afraid to put her weight on the seat. Slowly she looked around. There was no one else there, only her and a dripping tap that hadn’t been turned off properly. She felt the hand towel beside her it was damp.

This can’t be right.

With stealth she ran back to her bedroom. She fumbled blindly with shaking hands for her mobile phone on her bedside table. In her desperation she pushed it aside and heard it fall with a soft thud down between her bed and the table. She felt around but could not locate it. She turned on the light beside her and breathed easy when she plucked it up.

She needed to call someone, but whom? There was no one but Dan. She felt her eyes sting, how had that happened? She used to have so many friends. She used to be normal. What had happened to her life? Would it be such a good idea to call Dan? He would think she couldn’t handle being left alone. He might ask questions that she did not want to answer. How could she explain why people were after her without revealing what she had done?

She sat back against the bed, coming to terms with the revelation that she was an adult now. She wasn't supposed to panic. Now dawned the age of rationality and embracing sobriety.

She didn't feel sober or rational when she opened her eyes and stared open-mouthed at the magnolia walls of her bedroom.

Scribbled from ceiling to floor on every inch of surface with Ophelia’s favourite pink glitter pen were three little words.

She’s not yours, she’s not your, she’s not yours, she’s not yours . . .

The phone dropped unnoticed from her hands. What use was it when there would be no one for her to call? She pulled her long hair around her and shielded her eyes. She rocked back and forth trying to hold in a wild giggling that shook throughout her bones. There was someone else with them that night; she had been so used to be being lonely that she'd thought she'd been imaginig things.

She had a suspicion that it could be and it was more unsettling than the thought of angry petty gangsters. Mothers were a strange sub-race of human, their loved their beloveds with fierce determination. Any threat whether real or imagined would be eradicated. Mothers left no room for doubt, their sworn duty of protection was unrelenting. Was someone in the house checking on Ophelia, like what any good mother would do?

No one really knew much about the events that had led to Jennie being committed. Ophelia had been found half-starved after she had failed to turn up to school after half-term. Her arms had been criss-crossed with tiny cuts. There had been burns too. The social services had been unable to determine whether they had resulted from self-harm or abuse. They had found Ophelia sitting at the foot of the stairs. Her feet were bare and crusted with dirt and flaking dried up blood. Jennie was found in the back room which had been boarded up from the outside. Jennie was found lying in her own feces with no remaining shred of humanity.

What sort of life had they lead before social services had intervened? What sort of young woman would Ophelia have grown into had she not been rescued?

Sophie made a fist with her hand and pummelled it into her other. She too could be fierce, she did not have to share blood with Ophelia to be a good mother to her. This was not going to happen on her watch. She owed it to Dan who had done so much for her. Sophie realized then like a punch to the stomach that she really cared for him. She had promised herself she would never get close to anyone again, but there it was. She also held a soft spot for that lovely, sleeping girl.

Again, she checked on Ophelia. She was still there but she would not remain safe if they stayed here. The stairs creaked slightly as Sophie went downstairs with slow deliberation, uncomfortably aware she was only dressed in an oversized t-shirt.

Downstairs was calm and swathed in shadows. Objects looked different in the dark. There didn't seem to be anything amiss, but Sophie couldn’t be certain. Had that rug been moved? Was it slightly off -center. She tiptoed silently across the open plan hall into the front room and came to the shelf by the front door.

Her car keys were exactly where she had left them. They felt reassuring in her hand, and the car could be seen from where she stood. If she had been a lesser person, she would have continued walking out the front door and into the night. But she was a mother now.

She sat down on the sofa trying to compose herself. She needed a plan. Where was a safe place to go? It was somewhere between 3 and 4 a.m. There were three long hours until morning. In the morning, everything would be ok, but until then . . . .

Sophie’s mother did not live too far away, a few hours' drive at this time of night. The roads would be clear. They would be safe as long as they were moving. Yes, that seemed the right thing to do, except she hadn’t spoken to her mother in ten years. Sophie couldn’t be sure her mother would recognize her. She had changed so much.

Sophie put her head in her hands and then the tears began to fall. She was not built for these situations. Was she going crazy? What was Dan going to say about all this? Ophelia would almost certainly tell him she had been whisked away in the middle of the night. Would social services find out about this? Ophelia might be taken away, and they might ask her questions.

Mum would know what to do and Sophie really needed her right now. Mum with her loving arms would make all the bad things go away, a mother’s love was the strongest protection of all.

Without any more hesitation, she packed a bag and got dressed convincing herself that in years to come they would look back on this night and laugh. She would get through it just like all the scary scenarios she had faced. Learning to drive, asking out that boy in the year above her at school, slipping out of her bedroom window many years before to run away with an older man.That other thing. The bad thing she couldn't tell anyone about.

She went into Ophelia's room to wake the child. She flung herself at the girl's bed and ripped back the covers with fury. Then she darted for the light switch and checked under the bed. She didn’t care about making a noise now.

Ophelia was gone.

But where was she? Had she been taken?

“Ophelia? Ophelia? Where are you?” Every light was on now shining out into the street. Just like the black candle in the window. Sophie ran back into Ophelia’s room, maybe the girl was still there, maybe she was just being silly.

But the signs were there. Her room had been disturbed, drawers were open and clothing dripped out onto the floor. Her dressing table which had been immaculately ordered was now in disarray. There could have been a struggle, Sophie couldn’t tell for sure.

Wherever Ophelia was, she must be so frightened. Where the hell was she? Was she still asleep, or being dragged away kicking and screaming?

In blind panic, Sophie ran out again into the hallway, she felt dizzy but there was so much to do. The hallway window was open again. This time the curtains tails wriggled with urgency and flew outwards as if trying to describe what they had just seen. There was no need to close them now.

Again, she took to the stairs not quite ready to admit to herself that Ophelia was gone. She did another search downstairs but there was no sign of her. From the kitchen drawer, Sophie took a sharp knife and held it out in front of her.

She looked back into the hall as she pushed the bolt across the front door and released it.

Outside was quiet, peaceful even. There had been no sound of screeching tires making a desperate get away. Sophie knew she would have heard that. Also absent was the sound of scuppering footsteps. There was nothing amiss whatsoever.

But she could hear something faint.

“She’s not yours, she’s not yours . . .”

Sophie came out into the street realizing too late she had no shoes on. Tiny stones dug sharply into her feet, but the pain felt delayed. She came to a stop and squinted her eyes.

Across the street and down the block was a lone woman standing under a lamp post. She appeared to be twitching as if she were being held firmly in place, but was struggling to break free. She wore a giant, heavy coat despite it only being early autumn.

Sophie could not see her clearly but she could not recall ever seeing that woman before and she knew everyone in the village. The woman shifted constantly, looking all around her, eager to be away but unable to go. She rubbed her hands together despite it not being cold.

At the corner of her eye, Sophie caught a movement. It was Ophelia, Sophie cried with relief and began to close the distance between them.

“Ophelia, sweetheart,” Sophie called out.

Ophelia had not heard and walked to the curb with a small, pink rucksack slung over one shoulder and dutifully paused to see if there was traffic. She looked left then right, then left again and began to cross.

“Ophelia?” This time Sophie screamed. She’d wake up the whole village and gather an army to protect Ophelia. Ophelia looked back to Sophie and smiled.

“She’s not yours, she’s not yours . . .” came the whispered the mantra over and over.

Sophie watched the child walking away. She noticed the woman's nervous trepidation increased as Ophelia got closer. The woman didn't want to be there at all and seemed unsure of how she had gotten here.

It was Jennie alright, it had taken Sophie a few moments to recognize her from the old photo by Ophelia’s bed. She looked different now, heavily fatigued and a far-away look in her eye that in a previous age would have suggested she was entirely away with the fairies.

“No!” Sophie growled. Somehow Jennie, Ophelia’s estranged mother had gotten into Ophelia’s mind. She had manipulated her against Sophie. Sophie knew she could be a better mother if she was given a chance, “We belong together, Ophelia.”

Everything she tried in life she’d eventually given up on, but not this. Sophie would not give up on this little girl. She ran out into the deserted street and despite her legs trembling with shock she ran until she had caught up with them. Strangely she felt in control, she knew that nothing would stop her from saving the child. Now, she felt like a real mother.

Everything became clear and when she reached them, she pushed Jennie with all her strength. Jennie crumpled as she fell. To Sophie’s surprise, the woman simply whimpered as she lay there. She made no attempt to get up and even looked relieved to see Sophie.

“What are you doing? Get away from her!” Sophie said standing over her.

Ophelia calmly stepped in between them and raised her hands to appease Sophie. She took a deep breath and stepped back, maybe she shouldn’t have been so hard against a woman who was clearly ill.

“I’m sorry, Ophelia, but she’s done wrong. My only concern is keeping you safe.” She stroked Ophelia’s soft blonde hair.

“Mother should never have been taken away from me,” Ophelia said. “I was doing just fine looking after the both of us.”

“But you’re just a child. She should be looking after you. She’s your mother.”

Sophie delicately took hold of Ophelia’s hand so as not to startle her. Jennie made no attempt to move but Sophie was not going to be taking any chances. She looked down at the woman who had tried to snatch Ophelia. So this is the woman who had me terrified moments before. Sophie had imagined a monster but the poor woman was anything but. She needed help, Sophie wanted to take her in too and make her a cup of tea, not that it would do anything to settle her nerves.

Ophelia shook her head and smiled. “Mummy can’t look after me. She lost her mind when our invocation went wrong.”

Sophie looked down as Ophelia tightened her grip. “Invocation?”

“We’re witches,” Ophelia explained as if it was the only explanation needed. Sophie giggled nervously, just how far had Jennie’s poison reached into Ophelia’s mind? She looked again at Jennie; she didn’t feel so sorry for her now.

“It always passes through the mother’s line, didn’t you know that?” Ophelia sighed as if she was talking to a small child and pulled Sophie away from the street light. “Mummy was taken from me before I had the chance to put things right.”

“Ophelia, I’m going to help you now, not this woman. What needs to be done to put things right?”

“You will?” Ophelia was hopeful, “Daddy was going to take everything we had so he could buy a new home with you. He said you was going to be my new mummy. He showed me a ring.”

A tear trickled down Sophie’s face, she bent down, “Yes, but it will be your home too. We’ll be so happy.” She went to hug Ophelia close before realizing she still held the kitchen knife. She smiled and quickly dropped it hoping Ophelia wouldn’t notice the weapon and feel scared. But it made a loud noise as it hit the pavement.

Ophelia moved with no hesitation to grab the knife and once it was in her hands she slashed at Sophie’s face cutting her upwards across her left cheek and the bridge of her nose.

“Oh, no!” Sophie moved her hands over her face. It was Ophelia that needed help, it was only now that the damage done to her was beginning to surface.

Sophie’s left side felt cold, then hot. Her legs gave in and she felt ever so tired. When she reached for the cause the pain, she felt only the handle of the knife, the rest was inside, before it was quickly whisked away.

“Ophelia, what have you done? You must call for an ambulance, everything is going to be ok. I promise you.” Sophie said.

“Shut up, Jodie. That’s your real name isn’t it?” Ophelia then turned her attention to her mother who lay helpless on the ground. The woman whimpered as Ophelia held out her hand but knew better than to resist.

“Sweetie, I want to go back to the mental ward, why did you summon me? I’m no use to you anymore; I’ve served my purpose; I just want to be left alone.” Jennie felt herself being pulled up and taken away.

“No, Mum, you belong to me.” Ophelia held her hand and they began to walk down the road.

“Your father will come after me. He won’t rest.” Jennie pleaded.

Ophelia smiled and tilted her head, “I’ve taken care of Father. No one will separate us again.” Jennie broke into tears as she felt a warm knife press into her back.

“Keep walking,” Ophelia said looking around. She brightened when they left the road and down a dark foot path, “We’ll be together forever now, Mum.”


THE END


2016 S.J. Budd

Bio: Ms. Budd lives in London and writes articles for www.findahood.com. You can find her blog at www.sjbudd.co.uk. She has been previously published in Sanitarium Magazine, Siren’s Call Publications, Deadman’s Tome, Innersins, Bewildering Stories, Shadows at the Door, Aphelion Magazine, Danse Macabre, Blood Moon Rising Magazine and The Wild Hunt Magazine.

E-mail: S.J. Budd

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