The Company They Keep – A Continuation
When he got downstairs to the kitchen he wasn’t quite prepared for the sight there. His father looked up. He was sitting with the daughter on his knee. The photo albums were spread out across the table. At the other end of the kitchen table were standing a man and a woman that the boy did not recognise. They were both wearing some kind of uniform. The uniform was black, with buttons arranged diagonally across the breast. The buttons themselves were silver, and seemed to have some kind of design embossed upon them, although they were so shiny that the design could not be seen. The two people also wore black hats, and shiny boots. There was a large holster at the left hand of the woman and at the right of the man. The boy could hardly keep his eyes off of the guns. They were huge and ugly, black metal tubes with triggers.
‘Ah, my son,’ said the father, holding his hand out toward him. The boy didn’t move. ‘My son,’ said the father again, this time directly to the two strangers, ‘As you can see.’
The two uniforms gave the boy a curt nod.
‘These officers have come, ah, to look for cameras.’ The father told the boy. ‘They say that they have special orders. I thought it best…’ he trailed off.
‘You don’t know of anything that might interest us?’ The woman asked the boy, taking off her hat. Her short blond hair was cut like a razor. Her lips were black. She looked keenly at the boy.
The boy swallowed. ‘No,’ he said.
‘I see,’ said the woman, and stepped back. She put her hat back on. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I think that we can be out of your way soon enough. You’ve been most accommodating.’ She spoke to the father and indicated the pile of books on the table. ‘I think all we need do now is a brief search and we will be out of your way.’ She turned to her colleague and whispered something to him. He seemed uncertain, but gave her a brief bow, before he began to gather up the family albums.
‘Where are you taking them? I thought you only wanted cameras.’
‘Photographic materials,’ said the woman, ‘You may get them back. It all depends.’ The man put the books into a bag and placed a tag on it. He looked up.
The father hesitated before he told the stranger, who wrote it down quickly. He bowed to the man and again to his colleague, and then he left the room, taking the bag with him. The front door sounded as he left.
‘I will be carrying out the search myself,’ said the woman, a polished nail tapping on her weapon. ‘I hope that it shan’t take long.’ The family stared at her. She met their eyes easily.
She pointed at the boy. ‘You can show me the house.’
She smiled like a shark. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘You. Why not?’
He looked at her. ‘Why not?’ There was a calm in his voice. Flat, even. Even.
As the boy led her about the house he was uncomfortably aware of her body behind him. There was something of her scent upon the air, and it pushed about him, enveloping him like a fine rain. The boy could feel her footsteps as they echoed in the carpet under his own feet, shifting the fibres almost imperceptibly.
‘What’s in there?’ Her voice sharp. She rapped her gun against a door.
‘That? That’s just a cupboard.’ He opened the door to reveal tins of poorly stacked paint and rusting hammers. Sundry brick-a-brac. The woman peered into the cupboard for a moment before nodding, curtly.
They went about the house like that for a while, he showing her the rooms, the toilet, cupboards. She peered into each with the same black stone eyes. Hard and narrow. Sometimes she stared so hard that her eyes seemed to vanish into black slits. The boy stood nervously by her, every once in a while stealing little glances at the gun in her hand, or the gleam of her boots. Every once in a while.
‘What about upstairs?’
He hesitated, not eager for his mother to be disturbed in the delicate condition in which they had left her. ‘Nothing much,’ he said, ‘Nothing really to see.’
‘Which,’ said the uniformed woman, ‘Is exactly the sort of thing in which I am interested.’ She swung passed him and started up the stairs. He watched her sway up the steps, snug in her uniform. His eyes followed curves. For a second he could see his face reflected in the shiny leather of her boots. He hurried up the stairs after her.
In the kitchen the father gripped on to his daughter very tightly. She made low cooing noises. Stroking his hair. A faraway smile flickering over her lips.
‘And this is your bedroom?’ said the woman, eyebrows curved and raised.
‘Yes, yes it is.’ He shifted nervously as she walked around the room. The uniformed woman looked about with a keen eye, checking under the mattress, behind the posters of bands he didn’t like any more.
‘You keep this room very clean,’ she said after a few moments of rummaging. To the boy it had seemed like hours.
‘What, I? Oh, yes, yes I do. I try.’ He grinned nervously, hopelessly.
She returned a thin smile. ‘Yes. In fact, it looks as though you don’t even live here.’ She ran a gloved finger along a surface, and held it up to her eyes. ‘No dust though,’ she said, ‘you’re thorough, I’ll give you that.’ Her eyes had hardened into chips of ice, but he returned her stared squarely. They remained like that for a moment, defying each other to make some kind of a move. She turned away sharply and went quickly to the mothers’ room before the boy could even react. Hurriedly he followed her, but she was already through the door and into the bedroom. Almost out of breath he caught up with her.
‘And whose room is this?’ the woman curtly demanded. The boy looked about. There was no sign of his mother in the room, even though she had seemed so incapacitated when last he had seen her. Somehow she had got out. He wondered how.
‘This is my mother’s room.’
‘Just your mother?’
‘Well, dad too.’
‘Yet you mention only your mother? Are you, as they say, a mother’s boy? Do you go that way?’
The boy looked confused. ‘What? I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Don’t you? I think you do.’ She leaned in close to the boy so that he could smell the sweet sharp smell of her. ‘I know all about you,’ she hissed it quietly, ‘I know just what it is that you’ve done.’
‘You can’t,’ the boy too almost whispering.
‘You can’t,’ he said it louder this time, ‘I didn’t do anything.’
‘Really? Then why did you run away from school? Why did you run if you did nothing wrong?’
The boy stepped back, perplexity clouding his face for a second, and she stalked after him like a cat. His eyes fixed on the shape of her hip, the way that the shape changed as she took a step.
‘Well,’ she said, a sharp cornered smile flickering across her lips. ‘Why would you run?’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ he said, a sure tone cutting through the tremor in his voice. There was something about the way in which she looked at him, he thought, something in the shift of her eyes. It was like this whole thing was more than a game to her, almost as if it were personal.
‘You don’t think that I believe you?’ she stepped closer again. This time though, this time he did not step back, but matched her movement, stepping up to her. He could feel her breath against the side of his cheek. Feel the slight sough of it.
‘What is it you want?’ As she said it the boy noticed a whole new sound in her voice that had not been there previously. Her hand was against his chest. He could feel it there, like a badge pinned on him, almost hot through the school shirt he still wore.
‘I don’t want anything,’ his lips almost against hers.
‘There is something,’ she said, ‘something about you, isn’t there?’
The boy made no reply. Her eyes were closed and her hand still clenched at his chest.
‘Is this how it was at school?’ asked the woman, her black lips spreading across a smile, her tone like liquorice.
And then a sound: the tearing of dead leaves. The boy looked on as seemingly endlessly slowly the woman’s head separated from her body in front of him. Then his mother, a bloody shovel in her hands. The empty body of the woman thumped to the ground, oozing a black blood that froze and cracked on the floor. The boy walked over to where the woman’s head was blinking and twitching, as if trying to communicate some last truth. He picked the head up by the hair and held it before him, looking into its eyes. Then he leaned close to its ear.
‘Far too much like it,’ he whispered, before he closed the woman’s eyes forever. He let the head drop to the floor by the body.
His family stood in the doorway of the room, waiting on him silently. Behind the curtain the two pieces of carbon cracked and fell into dust.