Tabula Rasa

  • II
  • /
  • III
  • /
  • IV
  • /
  • V
  • /
  • VI
  • /
    1. He arrived at the same time every Tuesday.
    2. The fish swam past him lazily.

    He arrived at the same time every Tuesday.

    tom

    He arrived at the same time every Tuesday.

    Señor Raol Ferreira. A man of few words, impeccable taste and advancing years. He would arrive at exactly 10:30 and sit at the window table in the far corner. After politely enquiring about the specials he would, without fail, order a café con leche and a sweet almond pastry. He would then pull out the days newspaper, reading it from cover to cover before folding it back up neatly at 11:30. He would then pay, always in exact change left on the corner of the table, tipping his hat to the waitresses on the way out.

    One of those girls was Maria Ferreira (no relation). She had been working at the cafe for the summer and liked the funny older gentleman. While he was very kind there was always a sparkle of something in his eye. Not danger exactly, but as though he was playing a part and only you and he were in on it. She would always choose him the best pastry from the cabinet and make sure his coffee was brewed extra strong, just how he liked it.

    Last Tuesday however, much to Maria's dismay, Señor Raol Ferreira did not show up at exactly 10:30 and look at the specials before ordering a coffee and a sweet almond pastry. He did not show up at all, in fact.

    The other girls hadn't noticed, not that she would expect them to. She considered them particularly vapid, concerned almost exclusively with which of the local boys had spoken to who last night (Ramon, to Cristibel). She raised it with them anyway and they predictably told her not to worry so much. They said he was probably ill or perhaps he had gone to another café, but she knew they were wrong. Señor Raol Ferreira did not strike her as a man who got ill, and he was definitely not one to go to other cafes.

    At the end of her shift she wrapped up three of the leftover pastries in a napkin and walked to his house. He had ordered cakes for a party the previous year, so they had his address in their order book. As she headed into his street, double checking the address she had scrawled on a napkin, she started to suspect she might be on an adventure. She should know, she was well versed in adventures.

    Not her own however, much to her chagrin. Maria was looked after by her father, though only in the loosest possible sense. He was a sailor and spent 364 (and a half) days a year at sea (he had half a day off for Christmas, though inevitably spent it heaving in the toilet due to his "landsickness"). When he was away he would send her postcards from every port the ship docked in telling her of the adventures he had been a part of.

    Maria's father had a particular aptitude for adventures. There was the time he accidentally dropped a box of snakes they were transporting for a sultan and had to chase them through the city. Or there was the time he got onto the wrong boat and ended up helping smuggle opium out of China. Or the time he had to escape prison after being caught helping to smuggle opium out of China. Adventures seemed to seek him out, whether he wanted them or not (typically he did not). Maria, on the other hand, felt her life was particularly bereft of them.

    Señor Ferreira’s house was not far from the café so she was shortly standing on the doorstep feeling foolish. She optimistically looked up and down the cobbled street, hoping to spot a neighbour she could enquire with. The only other living thing on the street was a mangy cat sunning itself in the evening rays. It was Friday so everyone was down at the piazza drinking wine, eating tapas and generally not skulking on doorsteps. Her stomach was churning but she steeled herself to knock on the door.

    At this juncture in the story, it would be useful for you know a little more about Señor Raol Ferreira. While the elderly gentleman was indeed kindly he had managed to get himself mixed up in a bit of trouble. On the other side of the door on which Maria will imminently knock there are three men, with guns, waiting for the elderly man to return home. As is almost always the case when dealing with men holding guns, they were not happy. They believed that Señor had stolen something, which he had, and they wanted it back. It would also be remiss of me to not inform you that Señor Ferreira was presently rounding the corner at the end of the street.

    At this point, three things then happened almost simultaneously. First, Raol, distracted by seeing the waitress on the doorstep, stood on the tail of the lounging cat, which screeched violently. Second, the sound of the cat startled one of men inside who squeezed the trigger of his gun, blasting a hole in the ceiling. Third and most egregiously, Maria, startled by both the shot and the cat, dropped her pastries. By the time the ears of the men inside had stopped ringing, Maria was halfway to home and Raol had sequestered himself down a side street, waiting to see who was firing shots into his ceiling.

    It was getting dark before the men emerged, covered in plaster and muttering darkly. They immediately noticed the pastries on the front step as well as the white napkin they had been wrapped in. Raol could see them discussing the discovery from his vantage point. He knew that the young girl in the cafe was caught up in it all whether she liked it or not. Perhaps an adventure was on the cards after all.

    ---

    By the time the men left the building Maria was already home, lying on her bed and chastising herself. At last, an adventure falls straight into her lap and the first thing she does is run away!

    As the adrenaline began wearing off and her breathing returned slowly to normal, she began to analyse the events of the night. The sound she had heard was definitely a gunshot, she was sure of it. Not that she had ever actually heard a gunshot before, but based on what she had read in books she was absolutely certain. This was very exciting to Maria. Gunshots meant guns, and guns positively reeked of adventure. She promised to herself that she wouldn't run away next time.

    While Maria was swept up in the excitement of definitely being on an adventure, she did not consider the following (and I am sure you will agree quite pertinent) questions: Had she just overheard a murder? Was Raol ok? Should she tell the police? What about the pastries in the napkin? However, and I am sure you will agree with me dear reader, perhaps the reason that we think to ask such questions is the reason we don't end up on adventures like young Maria here.

    ---

    The next day, Maria was standing idly in the cafe, replaying the events of previous night in her mind for the hundredth time. She had just got to the end of Raol’s street when the door chimed and a customer walked in.

    He was a squat, squarish man with thick features and a rough dark stubble. One of the other girls went to serve him and Maria watched absently as Isabella went through the specials and took his order. Suddenly, Maria's heart skipped a beat. He had just brought one of the cafes napkins out of his pocket and was asking Isabella about it. Maria saw Isabella point back to her cheerfully before taking the napkin off the gentleman.

    "Maria, that gentleman said that he found this napkin on the street with some pastries. I told him that you had taken some to Raol yesterday — did you drop it on your way to Raols?" Isabella asked Maria while she busied herself getting the coffee together. Maria nodded slowly while her mind raced.

    She had dropped the napkin right outside the door! And now this man who was almost certainly a criminal and almost definitely carrying a gun was going to shoot her where she stood and the bullet would go straight through her and hit the coffee cups behind her the shards would go everywhere and everyone would be picking shards of coffee cup out of their hair for weeks!

    She now also realised she had been staring directly at the man who was directly staring back at her. Without thinking she dropped into a crouch behind the counter. Isabella stared at her dumbly.

    “What are you doing?” Isabella asked with suspicion, peering down at her.

    “Ah, er, cramps,” Maria replied, trying on a wince. “I think I must have eaten some bad fish. I better head home.” She proceeded to scuttle along the length of the bar while still crouching to grab her coat. Isabella watched her with incredulity.

    “You can’t just leave! I will be swamped!” Isabella whined. There was currently two customers in the cafe, one of whom was trying in vain to catch Isabella’s eye so they could pay and leave.

    “I think I might be sick,” Maria replied, pretending to wretch and calculating the distance from the end of the counter to the door. Isabella’s eyes widened.

    “Oh, you better be off then. We don’t want that sort of thing in here.” Maria nodded. Isabella sidled round her to deliver the coffee to the squat man, still blithely unaware of the woman who was desperately trying to pay. As Isabella walked into the gap between the end of the counter and the door, Maria rushed forward and grabbed it, swinging it open and launching herself out into the street. The squat man’s brow furrowed.

    - - -

    Maria’s heart pounded as she caught her breath in a small alley just off the main street that the cafe was on. She had bolted out the door of the cafe with a thought to continue down the street at the same pace. However, a few steps down the road she realised that if the squat man was looking for her, there may be others. She would have a better chance of slipping past undetected if she wasn’t running at full pace in waitresses outfit in the middle of the day, so she ducked down the alley.

    Once she had composed herself, she emerged back onto the main street with her best nonchalant amble and headed towards home. It was a beautiful day and the street was packed. She tried her best to become part of the crowd but the hairs were standing up on the back of her neck. One of her father's stories came back to her.

    In the adventure of the missing hat, her father had been heading through the city when the hairs on the back of his neck stood up just like Maria's were doing now and he was certain he was being followed. To confirm his suspicions he did three things. Maria now followed suit.

    First, he kept an eye on passing shop windows to see if he could see anyone keeping an eye on him. Maria studied the windows of the greengrocer, the bakery and the bookshop as she passed. Sure enough, in each window she could see a man with his eyes fixed on her keeping a few paces back. Suspicions aroused, she proceeded onto the next step, stopping suddenly and crossing the street, doubling back and then continuing on in the same direction. Sure enough, in the next shop window she could see the man was still following her. She considered the last step her father had told her, but it was illegal in most countries, so she skipped it for now.

    Now acutely aware of the man behind her, and certain he was following her, she tried picking up her pace without making it too obvious, keeping an eye on him in every window she passed. He was almost the exact opposite of the man she had seen in the cafe. Tall and thin he stood a head taller than everyone else on the street, though he was clearly trying to slouch down to hide his evident height. This made him easy to tabs on for the most part.

    She was trying so hard to observe the man behind she nearly collided with a shopkeeper standing outside his shop.

    “Ah, madame, I see you have been attracted by our beguiling scents! And no wonder, they are the finest scents in the whole of Lisbon.” She started and looked to see who was talking to her. A man with dark oiled hair and a curled, oiled, mustache spoke to her greasily in a clearly affected french accent. Her nostrils reliably informed her she had nearly run into a perfumier. “Looking to attract a handsome man no doubt?” he insinuated with rambunctious eyebrows.

    “Well, ah, no. Ideally looking to get rid of one actually.” She responded, trying to keep an eye out for the tall man in the reflection of the shopfront. She couldn’t see him any more.

    “Very good madame, I have just the thing. Please, come in, come in,” the man oozed, taking her gently by the arm and steering her into the shop.

    Unable to spot the tall man she allowed herself to be guided in, thinking at the very least she would have a better view of the street from inside. As she entered she was hit by a waft of warm stuffy air composed of the co-mingling of 100 different fragrances. The shop was shelved floor to ceiling in rich dark wood and was surprisingly dark given the bright day. She could just make out hundreds of tiny fragrance bottles carefully lined across every shelf. The thick fragranced air instantly made her feel queasy while the oily man slid behind his counter and begun rummaging for a scent. She took up a position by the shop window, idly fiddling with some decorative soaps whilst she scanned the street. Through talking to the man and entering the shop she had lost sight of her follower, despite his lofty stature.

    She could feel the air become yet denser with fragrance and she realised that the man was at her shoulder again. He was proffering a bottle before him.

    “Here you go madame, just the fragrance you need.” He was holding a small, glass spray bottle in his outstretched hands, made of frosted green glass. She picked it up and went to smell it. “Careful madame, it is quite potent.” He warned.

    She tentatively sniffed the opening of the bottle and her eyes watered from the pungent scent, heavily laced with pepper and other spices. He looked expectantly at her.

    “Yes, very good” she spluttered.

    He beamed, delighted. “Excellent madame, I am so glad that you like it. I will go wrap it up for you right now.”

    “No no, that is fine, I will just take it as it is.” He looked somewhat deflated but assented. She wasn’t quite sure how she had ended up now buying a bottle of fragrance, but she felt like she couldn’t back out now. She paid him the money and slipped the bottle into her pocket, heading back towards the door.

    She hesitantly stuck her head out, looking up and down the street, but she could no longer see her pursuer She figured that she must have given him the slip when she had entered the shop.

    Glancing around furtively whilst trying to look as nonchalant as possible, she proceeded up the street to the tram stop where she would take the tram back to her house. She felt greasy, like the fragrances in the shop had stuck to her skin in a slick layer, but the bright sun and the fresh breeze coming off the sea soon cleared her foggy head. There was still no sign of the man and she began to feel excited at the possibility that she had lost him. That was definitely the sort of thing you did in adventures.

    She saw the tram stop ahead and hurried towards it as she could hear a tram trundling closer. Just before she reached it she felt a hand grip her shoulder, hard. The force of it spun her round and she was soon looking up into the face of the man that had been following her. He smirked triumphantly.

    “I think you ought to come with me miss”. He spoke Portugese well, but with an accent that suggested that he wasn’t from here originally. She shook her head and tried to back away, but his hand was gripping her tightly. He said something else but the tram was close now so she couldn’t hear it. His eyes narrowed. Thinking quickly she grabbed the fragrance bottle from her pocket and sprayed it in his face. He howled, the fragrance burning his eyes. Suddenly, she felt a hand around her waist and she was abruptly on the tram standing opposite Señor Raol Ferreira.



    Later, she was sitting in Raol’s house with a cup of coffee, listening to Raol explain his side of the story.

    “I went to speak to you at the cafe this morning, but as I was drawing near I saw you running out. I nearly shouted for you, but realised I didn’t know your name. That was when I noticed someone following you down the street, so I kept a low profile and started following him. When I saw him go on ahead of you towards the tram stop I knew he was going to try and cut you off, so I went after him. I was standing up the road when he accosted you so I jumped on the tram and swept you up as I went past. Damn near pulled my arm off though, you’re heavier than you look,” he grumbled, rubbing his shoulder.

    She sipped her coffee. They were sitting in a different house than the one that she had delivered pastries to, which Raol says is in fact a rental he sometimes entertains at. This was his actual house and it was small and sparsely furnished. He was sitting opposite her on a small dining table and a woman, who Maria presumed was his wife, was in the kitchen.

    "Last night I went to see if you were ok, and I brought you some pastries, but when I got to yours I heard what sounded like a gunshot." Only now as she was saying this did she realise that she hadn't thought to check whether he had in fact been on the receiving end of that bullet, so she blurted out "You didn't get shot did you?!" The outburst shocked her almost as much as it did him. Coffee slopped down the side of his cup.

    "No no, I am quite alright. I wasn't in the house a the time, though I did arrive to see you leaving - that was why I was coming to see you this morning, to see if you were ok." He explained, hastily mopping at the coffee that had dripped on the tablecloth with one eye on the kitchen.

    "Who was shooting their gun in your house? And why for that matter? And who were the men that came after me today? Are they looking for you? Why?" Questions tumbled out of Maria like pastries out of a hastily dropped napkin. She coudn't help herself, she could tell she was definitely involved in an adventure now and she was very excited.

    "They are all very good questions Maria, whilst Estela is -"

    “Is that your wife?” Maria interrupted. Her had flew up to her mouth realising she had been rude.

    He smiled warmly. “Ah, that is not my wife, that is my housekeeper.” Maria went to apologise but he stopped her with a held up hand. “No need to apologise, she has been looking after me for so many years we may as well be married.” He looked warmly in the direction of the kitchen where you could hear the sound of her clattering. She had been cross when he walked in because he hadn't told her that they were expecting guests. He had tried to protest that he didn't know either, but by then she was too busy plumping pillows and straightening tablecloths and rummaging in the kitchen for some supper.

    "As I was saying, whilst Estela is preparing some supper I will answer your questions, but I will warn you, it's a long story. When I was a young boy, my mother used to take me to the art gallery every weekend. She was a lecturer at the local university on Art History, so we would wander through the gallery and she would tell me all about the different pieces of art, where they came from, who painted them, everything. However, we would always return to one of her favourite pieces, a small blue vase covered with figures in white relief. It sat at the end of infrequently used wing of the gallery. Often it would be just us two in there and we would make up stories about all the figures we could see carved on the vase, giggling and laughing. Those were some of the happiest times in my life."

    "When I was about 9 or 10 my mother grew ill. She was soon bedridden in the hospital but she would make sure that I still went to the gallery every weekend and come back and tell her what I saw."

    "There were some days when she was really bad, almost too weak to speak, so I had a great idea. I would go to the gallery and borrow the vase that my mother liked so much. We could laugh about it like we used to and it would cheer her up. I am not quite sure how I got away with it, but I strolled up, lifted the piece off the plinth it was on and shoved it in my rucksack. In my mind I was just borrowing it, I never thought that I was doing something wrong. I then walked straight to my mother."

    "When I got to the hospital I proudly lifted it out of my bag for her expecting her to be delighted, but she was furious. She scolded me and told me to take it back immediately. She said 'Art is for everyone Raol. It should never be kept for just one set of eyes, it should always be for everyone.' I was devastated. I had tried to cheer her up and I had ruined it, I had done the worst thing possible. I cried all the way back to the art gallery, and put the piece back. To this day I am not sure how I managed to take it and return it without anyone noticing. The only way that you would know that I had taken it was a small greasy fingerprint I accidentally left near the bottom of the vase."

    "My mother passed away a few days later. After the outburst she was too weak to speak, so that scolding were her last words to me." Raol's eyes were shiny and he dabbed them with a pristine white handkerchief he pulled from his pocket.

    "I carried on going to the art gallery every weekend, and I would always go to see the little vase that my mother loved so much. When you sat on the bench nearby and looked in the right place, the light just glanced off my little greasy thumb print. It wasn't the biggest gallery, and certainly not the most well funded, so they never had much budget for the ongoing maintenance of the pieces. So for many years I went and sat and contemplated that little greasy fingerprint. One day, however, it was gone."

    "I spoke to the museums curator and asked whether the vase had been finally been cleaned but he said that it had not. I went back and studied the vase. Something about it was wrong. It wasn't just the missing fingerprint, something seemed off about the whole thing. I carried on returning every weekend to contemplate the little vase, and every weekend I became more convinced that the vase had been swapped out with a forgery."

    Raol described how he had spent the last 40 years trying to track down the original vase. Along the way, he had found a string of similar forgeries and had liberated the originals from their new owners and returned them to their rightful place in the gallery. Recently, he had found who had the original vase and had broken into their house and taken it back. This was, he informed Maria, who those men were that were after him. They were sent by the owner of the house he had broken into.

    Maria was very excited. The heady scent of adventure filled her nostrils. Forgeries! Burglary! Art! She knew Raol was technically stealing, but only stealing from bad people who had taken art that did not belong to them. Like taking candy back from a bully. Raol leaned in conspiratorially.

    "This is where you might be able to help. The men who are after me know exactly who I am, but I don't think they would have had chance to get a good look at you, so I don't think they would be able to spot you in a crowd." He proceeded to tell her his plan. He would give her the real vase and a small rucksack. She would walk into the gallery the next day and swap the vase over. Just as Maria was about to ask some questions Estela walked in with supper and Raol stopped abruptly. She got the sense that Estela would disapprove if she knew that Raol was trying to get Maria to help (for the record, she would have). Over dinner Maria told her story about being looked after by her father and the adventures he had. Estela also told her story, but to be honest it was really quite boring and largely focused on a missing churn of milk from when she was a teenager.

    When dinner was over Estela made a bed for her on the sofa. Raol had said it was too risky for her to go home tonight. He also asked that she sleep on the plan he proposed, but they would have to do it tomorrow, before the men closed in.

    ---

    Maria did not sleep that night, positively effervescent with excitement. Never in her wildest dreams has she imagined that her first adventure would be one so grand. This Christmas she would be able to tell her dad an adventure story of her own - the adventure of the stolen vase! But here she was, standing outside the gallery with the backpack on her back with the real vase inside. Raol had drawn her a brief map so she knew exactly where to go. She paid for her ticket at the front desk and walked straight ahead into the main gallery space. She then proceeded through a door on her left and straight down the hallway until she reached the end of the east wing. In a room on her right was where the vase was kept. The vase was on a plinth in a spotlight at the end of the room.

    She looked around - the room was empty just like Raol had said it would be. She hurried towards the plinth and placed the bag at her feet, her heart pounding. She lifted off the fake vase and was about to place it in her bag when a heavy hand fell on her shoulder. Her stomach sunk. She spun around and saw the tall man that had followed her the other day. He was standing with the stocky man from the cafe. They held out their badges.

    "I am police inspector Da Rosa and this is detective Botelho. We are arresting you for burglary and for being a suspected accomplice of international art thief and con man, Señor Raol Ferreira."


    The fish swam past him lazily.

    josh

    The fish swam past him lazily.

    Otto was lying in the shallows of a creek, not too far away from home - a long-standing morning ritual to realign himself to the miracle of nature - when a slow ripple broke the water’s still surface. The fish continued to move with a slow grace and Otto surveyed this new visitor with keen curiosity. Its fins were lightning yellow - not that he’d ever seen lightning with his own eyes before, its luminance and hue were merely something he’d heard whispered from the rumour mill. The fish was dressed in hundreds of delicate scales that lined a sleek, if somewhat stout body, and all those scales glistened in all different shades of aqua. The contrast of yellows and blues was quite remarkable in the low afternoon sun, the gentle stream of rushing water reflecting and refracting minuscule rays of light all around him like a midday glitter ball. He had never seen a fish like this in his pocket of the globe before. It must be on an adventure, Otto thought to himself with increasing excitement; on one of its own life quests, exploring uncharted territory, paving the way for future pioneers of its kind. He needed to know more.

    “Hey!” He quickly called out to the meandering creature. “Where are you going?”

    The fish turned toward him with a long, lethargic swivel that started from the tip of its face and slowly rolled down its flank until their entire stumpy body had finally rotated in Otto’s direction. What a dance, Otto marveled to himself, visibly impressed with the control of this specimen.

    “There is nowhere to go anymore, I am simply moving in any direction to give myself something to do until it is my time to bid this land farewell.”

    Stunned, Otto realised that this fish was on no worldly adventure. It was lost, not only geographically but spiritually, too. Otto was hit by a strange feeling - there was something about the flippant apathy of this fish that moved Otto and made him think of his Brother, who had left many years ago. For a moment he let himself settle into a memory of Lucas and he realised how many moons it had been since they had last seen each other. He allowed himself to tap deep into his memory bank and see the moment with utter clarity. It was the day Lucas and their Father had left - Otto and his Mother were in the kitchen, heads down, hearts closed, as his Father took half of the home and half of its inhabitants and seeped out the front door without even a glance back. On that day, Otto had felt quite terrible. Since that day, he had been determined to live life as a joyous creature, and from that moment he had never understood anybody’s nonchalance towards life, choosing instead to seek pleasure wherever he could - pain never dared to cross his threshold.

    “Little fish,” he tried to remain calm, non-patronising. “There are so many places to go, so much to see and live for in this world.”

    “I respect your efforts, but they are wasted on my tired soul.”

    “What about your shimmering coat? Can you not see its kaleidoscopic world of colours reflecting across the sea floor as you swim onwards? You’re dazzling!” Surely, Otto thought to himself, this collection of words would do the trick.

    “I am not dazzled, but blinded. So plagued by bright colours all my life that have slowly chipped away at my vision - I can barely make out your features through my withered sight.” Maybe not.

    “Well, my mum always tells me I’m devilishly handsome. Apparently all the men in my family are.” Not big-headed, Otto believed, but honest, and factual, possibly even helpful for the fish to hear.

    “I wouldn’t know anything about that. ‘Handsome’ is not a word I associate with my life. ‘Handsome’ I am not.” Again, maybe not. One last shot, Otto thought.

    “Of course you are - if you can’t see it in your colours, can you see it in your svelte form, in your graceful maneuvers through the rapidly flowing ravines, rivers and oceans?”

    “My boy, I must cut you off there. These things you speak of sound an awful lot like love.”

    Otto was dramatically taken aback.

    “Well, surely there must be some time you saw love, some time you felt love in yourself?”

    Otto could see the fish think - genuinely think - and reach back through life to its past, to a moment where they maybe once felt joy, felt loved, felt good enough.

    “There may have been a moment, many years ago when I-”

    In a sick twist of fate, the sky broke above the duo before our dear fish found peace, its spoken swan song interrupted by a malevolent bolt diving towards their Earthly coordinates. Finally, with his own eyes, Otto saw lightning yellow. The seething light filled his whole horizon, and it was beautiful.

    A BREAK IN THE STORY TO MOURN THE LOSS OF OUR LIGHTNING-YELLOW-FINNED FRIEND. OTTO IS MIRACULOUSLY UNSCATHED.

    The following morning and it was time for the funeral, so Otto rose with the sun and paused to plan the ritual - every day must start with one. His clothes were already laid out from the previous evening, that was a given, but today there was a kink in his usually linear life. There were new elements that he had not expected, causing a rather unwelcome detour. The day could still start with a moment of stillness; he could still breathe and reflect and emit feelings of wonder into the universe. Then he had to shift from the norm, think of a different morning route, knowing that an alternative feeling would drive him. It was not a welcome change. He longed for yesterday morning, where nothing was different and he knew precisely what was coming his way. For years now, Otto had an innate desire for ritual, for routine and precise order. For how many years precisely, it’s all a little muddled and even he can no longer be sure, but something in the passing of the little fish forced Otto to break his daily traditions in a rather substantial way. He wriggled a shoebox free from the depths of his wardrobe and padded it with a handful of old socks - he didn’t want the fish to be knocked around too much in whatever afterlife was awaiting them. He shot down the stairs and shouted a farewell to the house, sure someone was bound to hear him.

    “I’m off to bury someone! Be back for dinner!”

    Otto’s mother, Andrea, was hovering a few feet down the hallway, deep in conversation on the phone. After her husband had left and demanded he take their other son, Lucas, with him, Andrea found the outside world an unfamiliar and feared space, something to be glanced at through a closed window. Despite the fear, she had to find a way to keep her relationships in the outside going somehow.

    “Bye honey - make sure you wear your good wellies - looks like we’ve had a night of bad rain out there.” Met with silence, she called again.

    “Otto? Honey?” Still nothing. “Sorry, I’m back... No, no, he must not have heard me... Well you know what he’s been like recently - it’s the same every year, but for some reason it’s worse this time around... I know, I know. I just don’t know what to do sometimes... I know, thanks.”

    Otto had flown out the door so quickly that he hadn’t even had time to grab his bad wellies, no mind heard his mother’s plea for the good ones. He was heading to the same spot as yesterday’s swim - the second Tuesday of the month always meant a swim in the stream just off Sandwick in the small village of Martindale. Going back today would throw off his schedule of fishing in the lake near Beckside Farm every second Wednesday of the month, but maybe he could make it there afterwards and his usual scheduling programme could recommence. He tried not to focus on the disruption of plans, and instead set his mind to getting back to the spot where he left the short yellow and aqua fish. As he cycled past St Peter’s Church, he slowed down to peer through the trees at the four little gravestones on the grass by the front door. He picked his favourite grey mound and left a small garden spade leaning against the stone wall, ready for digging on his return. After another minute or so, Otto made it to the bridge with a concealed path down to the water, and he started to descend.

    Carefully climbing down, Otto quickly realised that the water was far higher than it had been yesterday. In the spot where he could usually lie quite comfortably, the stream was already creeping towards his knees. He was hit by another memory - his Father this time - they were away, exploring the Lakes, he remembered shouting. Why? Otto shook his head - no time for reminiscing, he had a funeral to hatch.

    “Why didn’t mum say anything about the rain?” Otto wondered aloud, annoyed at now having to clumsily wade over to the roots of the tree where the fish had been delicately stowed away.

    A light panic started to simmer as Otto got closer and couldn’t see a single sign of a lightning-yellow fin amongst the brown network of bark. With desperation he pushed the surrounding foliage away, the water moving faster than normal as his panic boiled over. The fish had been swept away by the current; it could be anywhere by now.

    Putting his best front crawl into practice, Otto tore along the stream, gaining great speed thanks to the increasingly violent current. He stopped every couple of feet to root around the banks of the stream, tearing through plants and roots, desperately hoping for some sign of the fish’s remains. Crawl, stop, search. Crawl, stop, search. It was an exhausting routine, and Otto’s inherent optimism was beginning to dwindle. By the time he resigned himself to the fact that the fish was gone, Otto had swum so far along the water network that he no longer recognised where he was anymore. The current was getting stronger and the rain was picking back up with every passing moment. Because he had spent all of his energy and efforts on his very impressive front crawl, it was becoming increasingly more and more difficult to remain his ever-optimistic self. Spotting a gentle slope in the bank, Otto swam towards it, dragged himself from the water, and crawled towards higher ground.

    -

    With Otto’s quick dash swiftly slipping from her mind, Andrea was steadily making her way through the phone book, picking up the latest tidbits of gossip and passing them on as her own salacious tales, blissfully unaware of the mounting danger her son was in. Eyes in a temporary glaze, she noticed a sheet of paper lying by the front door, presuming it had fallen from Otto’s bag as he tore through the house. Half-listening to her current conversation, she stretched the phone cord to its limit and reached for the paper. Border to border, on top of a handwritten letter addressed to Otto, the paper had been frantically hacked at with yellow pencil, the words ‘DEAD FISH’ etched over and over and over again. The letter was signed by Lucas.

    “Jean? I have to go. I think something’s happened.” The phone fell from Andrea’s hand and collided with the floor; the BOUNCE, Bounce, bounce on the rough pine echoing throughout the hollow house. Andrea folded out the letter, trying to look past the yellow pencil screams at her long lost son’s words. When her husband had taken Lucas years ago, Andrea didn’t think she would ever hear a word from either one of them again, there was so much fury in the house on the day they left, and during the weeks and months leading up to that final morning. The letter spoke of a plan to meet, to run away. How long has Otto been speaking to Lucas for? Why would he not have told her? Why had he destroyed his brother’s letter?

    Andrea went to grab her coat and her good wellies, neither of which had been dusted off in a number of years. She rushed to the door, hand poised above the handle when her entire body lost its heat in one sickly moment. Frozen to the core, she began to sweat, then shake. As her vision started to blur, it was immediately kicked back into gear with a harsh flash of light immediately followed by another. Blue. Red. Blue. Red. An unfamiliar siren blared and the car door opened as Andrea stepped back from the mouth of the house; her captor, her protector.

    -

    Otto lay on the grass, face to the sky, and breathed, never before being so aware of the rapidity of his own breath. Feeling the cool, damp blades of grass around him began to soothe the fire of the panic and in his intense physical maneuvers. To aid the calm, Otto watched the clouds above him, watched them shift and glide but never colliding with one another in the great, endless expanse. For the briefest of moments, he forgot all about the fish and the reason he had travelled so far from home. Several minutes passed and the pulsing burn eventually left his arms, so he pulled himself from the ground and finally looked at his surroundings. He had made it to the outskirts of another town, one he didn’t recognise from so far away - he could see buildings on the horizon, with nothing but fields and a few scatterings of minuscule woods between them. Not one to permit stress more time than it needed, Otto set his direction and walked straight, determined to make it to the town and back home in time for dinner.

    Trudging through the field, Otto was suddenly aware of a new sensation - he felt with utmost certainty that he was being watched. He stopped on the spot and turned his head from side to side, but saw nothing. Only marginally perturbed, he continued onwards, reaching the first wall of trees within a few minutes. A dozen or so trees deep, it was a relatively small woodland, but the dense sky of leaves blocked all sunlight and very quickly Otto was having to squint to see anything a few feet in front of him. The feeling of being watched didn’t leave him and he was more alert than ever before. Still there was no sign of another human around when suddenly a branch behind him snapped. Otto spun around with fervor.

    “SHOW YOURSELF!” He screamed into the woods, fists raised, ready for an attack.

    “Whoa, slow down, kid. I’m just making sure you get to wherever you need to go.” A slow, composed voice called back to him. Otto was unconvinced.

    “Why?” He shouted. “Who are you?”

    “Just a friendly guide in your latest adventure.” From behind a nearby tree, a red deer emerged, slow but graceful. Otto immediately relaxed, the fear of surveillance fleeing from his body, immediately replaced with warmth and security.

    “I’ve never seen a real deer before!” He blurted out with a gawk.

    “Well, here I am, and I just want to make sure you’re okay.” There was a protectiveness that radiated from the deer, and as the fish had reminded Otto of his Brother, this deer seemed to hold a quality that immediately transported his mind to memories of his Father. With that realisation and the subsequent onslaught of paternal memories, however, something turned within Otto; as their walk grew, so did his unease. There was something about the deer that seemed too friendly, too eager to lend its support.

    “What did you say your name was?”

    “I didn’t - it’s been so long since I’ve been called that I seem to have forgotten it.”

    At a break in the fence that lined the field, they crossed its threshold. Otto went to turn right, directly towards the town, but the deer meandered to the left.

    “I think town’s closer this way.” Otto said, a fragility in his delivery.

    “I can see why you’d think that, but I know these fields and trees - that way leads to a woodland that’s too dense to pass through. For me anyway.” With a wink the deer continued to the left, but that response was all Otto needed. He let a few moments pass so that the deer’s flank was firmly pointed in the opposite direction and he fled towards the woods, praying with each bound that his feet would connect with the floor and drive him onwards. An exclamation came from behind him and he heard distant hooves gallop closer and closer. Otto ran harder than he ever had in his life.

    “Where are you going!?” The deer screamed into the closing gap. “I’m trying to help you get home!”

    Otto couldn’t let the deer get into his head, so he pushed even harder. By some miracle, he reached the edge of the wood with only a couple of feet left between him and the deer. Launching into the thick trees as a crash erupted, Otto buried himself amongst a tight cluster of exposed roots and gripped himself into the smallest ball. Minutes later, he opened his eyes and to his relief the deer wasn’t above him. He pulled himself from the tight cluster he had buried himself in and looked back towards the way he came, where he saw a floating shape at the outskirts of the woodland. The deer had been impaled on the torn branches of a broken tree; the wood tearing through its flank. Otto surveyed the creature and could only just make out the crimson rivers that ran through the deer’s deep red coat.

    ANOTHER BREAK IN THE STORY TO MOURN A SECOND LOSS. SOMETHING INSIDE OF OTTO IS CHANGING. HE FEARS HE IS COMING UNDONE.

    “Mrs Lewis?” The officer called out to a mute Andrea. “I need you to answer these questions for me, okay?” Andrea snapped into focus.

    “It’s Ms. I haven’t been married for a long time.”

    “And you haven’t seen your son in a long time either?

    “I see Otto every day.”

    “Not Otto, Ms Lewis, Lucas.”

    “Oh. No, not since my husband left. He took Lucas with him.”

    “And have you spoken to him at all since then?”

    “Once. He called the house without his father’s knowledge but I think he got caught. I haven’t heard from him since and I don’t know how to track him down.”

    “We think he was trying to track you down.”

    “Me? No, that can’t be right, I haven’t heard a word from him and he was too young to remember our address. Otto, my other son, it must be Otto - I found this letter just before you came to the door.”

    “Right now?”

    “Just this second, I swear.”

    “Can I take a look?”

    Andrea handed over Lucas’ letter and the police officer scanned the hacked scrawls on top of the delicate lettering, their face dropping at the violence.

    “We received a call from Lucas’ father - Lucas went missing two days ago and your address was found in one of his drawers. Frank traveled down here but he didn’t want to join me today - he’s out looking for Lucas.”

    Although safely inside, a chill crept over Andrea once more, her skin lost its colour and her maternal instincts kicked in with force - something was deeply wrong.

    -

    Staring at the form caught in the trees, the scene around Otto was starting to piece itself together in a most unnatural way. He looked down and his arms were covered in bruises, but he couldn’t remember how he got them. Mud was trapped deep under his fingernails and there was a slight misting of blood on his dirtied jumper. A scream from behind Otto pulled him from this trance and he was met with a dog walker with the most perturbed look on their horror-struck face.

    “It’s just a deer, it was chasing me.”

    The screams continued with fervor and Otto turned back towards the creature, only this time it had transformed into something else, someone more familiar.

    “Strange.” Otto mused aloud, as he turned towards the town and ran for his life once more.

    -

    Andrea heard the police radio before the officer could run over and turn it down.

    “Reports of a drowned body washed up from the stream down past Dale Head, and a mauled body found near the woods outside Hartsop. Any officers nearby to check them out?”

    She caught the officer’s eye and started to say something but was abruptly cut off.

    “There is no indication that it’s them - but I do need to go and investigate. I’ll be back, okay?” Andrea nodded. “And call the police if you see or hear anything of Lucas or Frank while I’m gone.” Once more, Andrea nodded.

    As the police car drove away, Andrea slumped against the wall, her body folding down towards the floor. Instinctually, she reached toward the telephone. Holding it in her shaking hand, however, she didn’t have the faintest idea of who she would call.

    -

    Sirens slowly rose from the periphery until they blared from all angles and filled the air around him and he ran, ran, ran, ran, he just ran as fast as he physically could. There was an energy, an excitement, a rush of adrenaline that soared through his veins and kept him moving forward. Kept his mind spinning backward. Brother. Father. DEAD FISH. Familiar deer.

    Screams and hollers joined the sirens in one unholy harmony. His adrenaline supply eventually depleted and he slowed to a halt. The town was so close. He couldn’t run anymore. It was over. Everything was over. A blow to the skull sent him soaring and Otto collided with the ground.

    -

    Red. Blue. Red. Blue. The lights filled Andrea’s hallway once more as the same officer got out of the police car and walked towards the front door - hat in their hand, placed over the heart. Andrea ran to the threshold and hovered her hand above the handle once again, willing herself to finally flee from her captor. Looking past the officer, Andrea saw Otto in the back seat. He was staring through the window, his gaze transfixed on her, a devilish grin on a face full of mania. The devil was in his eyes.

    As the police officer went to open their mouth and speak, Otto’s door flew open and he leapt from the car. They twisted and unholstered their gun in one perfect maneuver. Andrea hurled herself out the door as a thundering crack tore at her eardrums and a blinding yellow light took over her vision.

    She prayed it was lightning.