Safe in My Arms
He found her mingled with the leaves. Spotless, sacrificial. The hum of a vehicle faded in the distance and the woods lapsed into silence. Blake crouched in the space between a fence and a fallen tree and swept the dirt from his sister’s cold cheeks.
Here she was.
‘Hi sis…’ His voice was hollow, like it didn’t belong to him. He instantly regretted breaking the silence, throwing a glance over each shoulder. Right, to the valley of trees leading to the Volvo. Left, to blackness.
No stars were out tonight.
Blake hooked an arm around Hazel and supported her head as he raised her from the ground. Her dark hair fell from her face, revealing the whites of her eyes and the dry blood. Her blood, or someone else’s? He wanted to spit on his fingers and rub it away, make her clean again, but there wasn’t enough time.
The car waited in the shadows, not far from the road alongside Northycote Farm. Still, it was a good ten-minute walk from the woods behind it. Blake dithered, his arms aching with the weight of his sister.
He remembered climbing a tree here at ten years old, trying to reach a bird’s nest high up in the branches. Hazel stood at the bottom, terrified. She jumped and made swipes for his shoelace with her small, white hand.
You’re gonna fall and die and it’ll be your own fault, Blake. You bleedin’ idiot.
He fell alright. Hazel caught his lace and pulled off his shoe. He lost his hold on the branch and as he slipped, the nest tumbled to the ground.
Blake decided to walk the long way through the trees, out of sight. He headed off the main path, stumbling, breathing too loud.
‘Nearly there,’ he whispered to Hazel, to himself. He wished she would wake up, walk for herself. Her weight was slowing him down. ‘We don’t have time for this,’ he hissed, suddenly frustrated. His grip on her tightened. He could have sworn he heard footsteps.
By the time he could see the car, Blake’s arms were burning. He wasn’t much bigger than his sister. They were both skinny and tall. Proper Jones’s, people called them, before Blake left.
He lowered her to the ground, stretching his tense muscles. Behind him, he could hear leaves crunch in the distance. He felt panic rising in his throat and watched himself pick his sister up from the ground, the pain in his arms replaced by numbness. The crunching of the leaves continued. Blake broke into a run.
When he reached the car, Blake placed Hazel in the passenger seat, then got in and slammed the door. His fingers danced around the ignition. No keys. He was certain he had left them in the car, ready for their escape.
‘Shit,’ he breathed, straining his eyes to search for them in the foot well. ‘Jesus, Hazel. What am I gonna do?’
Three knocks at the window.
Blake fixed his eyes straight ahead, suddenly very cold. To his right, he could sense a man outside move, lighting a cigarette. He saw a flash of bloodshot eyes.
‘Stay here,’ he told Hazel. Blake opened the door, touching the outline of his pocket knife through his jeans. He regretted leaving his gun in the boot of the car.
‘Should’ve guessed I’d find you here.’
‘Hunter! But… how?’ Blake moved swiftly to block the view into the car behind him. He felt the panic coming again. ‘Give me my keys, Hunter.’
Hunter’s jaw tightened. ‘Bit stupid, aren’t you? Leaving your keys in the car.’ He tried to look in through the window.
‘I was in a rush,’ Blake licked his dry lips, stammering. ‘Move. Just move.’
‘I knew you had her,’ Hunter said, shoving Blake aside. He threw open the car door and looked at his wife sitting up in the passenger seat, chin resting against her chest. The blood had dried around the gunshot wound on Hazel’s left temple. She had been out here for a while. Hunter dropped his cigarette, stumbling away and moaning.
‘Oh god. Oh god,’ he sobbed. ‘Fucking hell. You sick bastard.’
‘It wasn’t me,’ Blake said, wringing his hands, his voice high and false. ‘I swear. I swear it. Swear on my life.’
Hunter let out a cry and took Blake by the shoulders, shaking him hard. He was saying things, but Blake couldn’t tell what they were. Then he stopped, and started to pace aimlessly, eyes glazed.
Blake held onto the car door, chewing his thumb. He felt far away, a spectator. ‘At least she doesn’t have to deal with this family anymore.’
Hunter stopped pacing. He stared at Blake for what seemed a long time. ‘Hazel was happy,’ he said, voice breaking.
Blake frowned. He tried to imagine her laughing, but couldn’t. He shook his head. ‘No. Our parents don’t make people happy.’
‘They didn’t make you happy.’ Trembling, Hunter opened the back door. ‘Get in the car.’
‘Give me my keys,’ Blake mumbled, taking his knife out of his pocket. He pointed it shakily in Hunter’s direction, holding the handle with both hands. He threw a glance at the boot of the car. ‘Give ’em to me.’
Hunter blinked at him, voice wavering. ‘Put that down.’ He took the car keys out of his back pocket and headed towards the boot of the car, eyeing him. ‘Put it down.’
Blake remembered the gun and lunged towards him, grasping for the keys. Their bodies slammed together hard and hit the floor. Blake slashed at Hunter’s face, tasting blood, cutting himself. He couldn’t tell where he began and Hunter ended.
In the distance, a siren sounded on the street. They both froze as it faded away. The knife was gone but Hunter’s face was covered in gashes. It made Blake smile.
‘Fuck you,’ Hunter spat from above him, pinning Blake’s wrists to the ground.
Blake flinched. ‘How did you find me?’
‘She wasn’t picking up her phone, and it had been nearly 24 hours… so I drove to your parents’ house. They didn’t answer the door, but your car was on the drive.’ Hunter paused to blink blood out of his eye. ‘Thought that was weird considering you don’t speak to them. I waited for you to come back. You got straight in your car, looked like you were in a hurry. I followed you for a while and then lost you.’
He remembered a blur of panic, breaking the speed limit, driving around aimlessly. ‘Something told me I’d find you here.’
Blake spoke distantly, staring past him to the boot of the car. ‘I wanted to bury her here but it wasn’t special like I remembered. Too much dog shit. I was going to find somewhere better.’ He paused to look at Hunter. ‘Don’t look at me like that. She was safe here.’
Hunter swung a fist hard into Blake’s face. He pulled him to his feet, steering him towards the boot.
‘What’s in here? Why do you keep looking at it?’
He thought about his parents; the carefully placed photographs on the shelf. One of Hazel, one of him. He thought about the colour red. He thought about Hazel. He let the panic bubble rise and burst in his chest.
‘Open the boot, Blake.’
Hunter opened the boot himself.
He began to retch. Blake’s parents lay curled up together, collapsed, like puppets whose strings had been cut. His mother’s eyes were still open. Blake looked into them, remembering how she had sung him to sleep with lullabies when he was small.
Safe in my arms, china doll. Safe in my arms.
Hunter uttered a noise Blake hadn’t heard before.
‘I was going to take them all away together. I don’t know where,’ Blake murmured, looking into the boot, fingering the dry patch of red staining the collar of his father’s shirt.
Hunter was shivering. He grabbed Blake by his sleeve and pulled him away from the boot and round to the front of the car. He went to shove him inside.
‘Wait…’ Blake said. ‘I want to ride with them.’
Hunter stared at him for what seemed like a long time. ‘No. That’s fucked up.’
‘Please. I want to be close to them.’
Wordlessly, Hunter watched Blake climb in beside his parents and close the boot.
In the dark, close to them again, Blake smiled, then slipped his hand under the rug he had wrapped around his parents to tuck them in. The cold metal of the gun touched his skin. Blake held his mother’s hand. But it wasn’t hers, it was too still.
He pulled the gun free and closed his eyes.
Storm Mann is Fiction Editor at the Black Country Arts Foundry. She graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Creative and Professional Writing and English, and is now studying for her English Masters.
As a freelance copy editor for her online business, Storm genuinely enjoys proofreading written work and preparing it for final publication.
During her time at university, she wrote for the campus newspaper, and her short story Purple Spandex was published in Electric Reads’ Young Writers’ Anthology 2016.
For more about Storm and her Arts Foundry colleagues, see our Meet the Team page.