The ceiling was a different colour.
Babs had insisted on painting their bedroom ceiling yellow, to match the rest of their house. Yellow was her favourite colour, closely followed by orange, so the whole abode was a glowing citrus fiesta, a banana and tangerine dream. A box of warm sunshine, she once called it. Chuck had exchanged a sly eye roll with his daughter over that one.
This room was anything but a box of sunshine. Dark and drab, would be a more accurate description.
It was wonderful.
Chuck lay for a while on this delightfully firm mattress, gazing at this lovely, neutral ceiling as his brain slowly solidified from the fuzzy mush it had woken up as.
Wait. That wasn’t his ceiling. This wasn’t his bed.
You’re not my wife!
The woman beside him blinked open her brown eyes and locked them on to his. It sent an intense, but not unpleasant, pins and needles sensation through his head, which settled into a gentle electric fizz.
For a while, the pair simply stared at one another. Chuck was desperately trying to recall what had happened, why he was here, who she was. He tried to piece together the fragments of memory he had.
He hadn’t gone to work because something had happened, but he had no recollection of what that something was. Babs had been crying; she’d been much quieter than usual. He had a vague memory of telling her that he was going to visit a bar.
Was she troubled by that? Had they argued? If so, she’d had good foresight and he should have listened to her. He had a splitting headache, patchy memory and was in a stranger’s house.
A stranger’s bed.
Chuck was a faithful man, a family man. It was very much out of character for him to upset his wife, skip work and go to a bar in the first instance. Flirting with another woman was bad enough but one who was young enough to be his daughter? Going back to her place? What the plum was he thinking?
Was he having a mid-life crisis? He’d always thought that when this moment arrived, he’d regrow his hair one last time before the inevitable balding set in. Or perhaps he’d get that tattoo he’d always wanted and hit the gym so he wasn’t ashamed to show it off.
But no. He’d gone down the ‘lecherous old creep’ route instead.
The mystery woman smiled, a little.
Chuck had never been in this situation. Before he’d met Babs he’d only ever had one girlfriend. He had never had a one-night-stand, never had the desire to. He didn’t know what the etiquette was, especially as he had absolutely no memory of their night together.
Oh no. He hoped he hadn’t used the condom from his wallet; that thing belonged in a museum.
Time for a pep talk. Right. You can do this. Come clean; let this poor girl down gently, then go and grovel to Babs. He took a deep breath.
“Hello,” he said politely.
He waited to see if she would say something but she remained silent. It almost looked like she was listening and… trying not to laugh?
“There is no easy way to say this. I’m terribly ashamed to admit that I don’t remember anything, Miss—“
“Lilith,” she offered. Her voice was as cool as her expression.
“Lilith,” he repeated. It didn’t ring any bells.
He couldn’t look at her any more. It was her eyes; so innocent and yet so very empty. She reminded him of…
He swung his legs to sit up on the edge of the bed; it took a few beats for his head to catch up and in that time Lilith had made her way over and settled beside. She looked concerned but also wary.
“You should rest,” she coaxed. “Mr—“
“Bucket. Charles, although everyone calls me Chuck.” He turned to her, shame written across his face. “I didn’t even tell you my name? Forgive me. Oh Watcher; what have I done?! I don’t remember what I did tell you, if anything at all, but I’m married. I’ve been married for almost thirty years. I shouldn’t have—” he motioned to her, to the bed.
“Bucket?” She seemed to be lost in thought. “You haven’t told me anything about yourself but that’s because I found you on my doorstep, passed out with a knife wound, Chuck,” she said. “Nothing untoward has happened. Not in the ways you’re thinking, at least.”
She shook her head. He breathed a massive sigh of relief before he registered her whole sentence. “A knife wound?” he asked. His hand instinctively went to the most tender area, his neck. He caressed the sewn seam gently. “Stitches?”
“Five of them,” Lilith murmured. “I’m a surgeon by day; mostly cosmetic, the occasional reconstructive.”
“A surgeon, how fortunate. Thank you,” Chuck said trying to make sense of everything, find a rational explanation for everything.
It was too much. For now, for sanity, he would try to see the bigger picture, rather than getting swamped with the little details.
“Was I attacked? Perhaps mugged?”
“You might have been.” She paused, looking uncomfortable. “I went through your pockets, trying to figure out who you were, who to call and I didn’t find your wallet or phone, only car keys.”
Chuck nodded. “I wonder how I ended up here. Where is ‘here’?”
“We’re in the forest about three miles from the village of Forgotten Hollow. You don’t remember how you got here? How you came by that wound? Who may have inflicted it?” He shook his head and she muttered to herself, angrily. Did she just call him a cretin? “Do you at least remember where you’re from?” she asked.
“Of course, Willow Creek.”
“Oh!” She seemed a mixture of confused and aggravated by this information. “That’s a surprise. What else do you remember? Do you recall what brought you to this neck of the woods?”
“No. Wait, what did you say the name of the village was? Forgotten Hollow?”
“Joe’s bar!” he announced, triumphantly. “I was going to Joe’s bar.”
“Joe’s? You drove all the way out here to go to that dump?”
“Yes. It was on the news. I can’t remember why it was important to go there, however.”
Lilith pulled her phone from her pocket. “Let’s find out why Joe’s humble little bar is on the news, shall we?”
She tapped the screen until she was on the news website.
“Oh my word,” she whispered, scrolling through and pausing. “Bucket.”
Chuck leaned over to view the screen that Lilith was staring at.
“That’s why I’m here! It’s because of my daughter!” Chuck declared. “I’m looking for Melinda!”
Caleb handed the keys back at front desk, settled the bill and re-joined the girls without screwing anything up.
“Where to next?” Melinda asked, adding the change Caleb gave her to the stack of notes and having a quick count.
“If we move swiftly, we should be able to get to the docks by sunrise,” Caleb suggested. “There’s a motel there.”
“It is better than this one?” April asked.
“Not really. Although one time I did get an upgrade.”
“You sure know your way around the motels of the world, Fringey.” Faith said. “A girl in every port?”
Caleb squirmed. “I’ve travelled this route quite a few times. We’re following the river, so from the docks, we’ll head through Glimmerbrook and then on to Windenburg. It’s where the three of us used to reside before we moved to Forgotten Hollow. We used to visit, but we haven’t been back for years.”
“So it’s like a holiday home in the countryside! Is it picturesque?” April asked, hopefully.
“Yes,” Caleb replied. “It’s next to a river, surrounded by unspoiled landscape, rolling hills, in the shadow of an old castle…”
“Oh it sounds so romantic!” April gushed. “I can’t wait to see it!”
“Yeah,” Faith concurred. “Let’s go as fast as we can so we have to spend as little time as possible hiding in rooms stained with fuck knows what.”
Caleb took April’s hand and started down the steps towards the main road. As Melinda passed her, Faith whispered, “”Where the three of us used to reside.””
“I picked up on that up, too,” Melinda said. “Who do you think the third one was? Seth?”
“Possibly,” Faith replied. “Seth and Lilith were definitely a thing. Kind of. At one point. It sounds like it all went completely to shit though.”
“I gathered as much.” Melinda studied her friend for a while. “What are you not telling me?”
“I saw him, tonight. He followed us here.”
“He followed us? What did he want? You weren’t out for long so I’m assuming not… you know.”
“No. He wanted a kick in the balls, but he got a thump in the heart instead,” Faith said, laughing.
“Come on, let’s not lose track of Clueless One and Two. I’ll explain on the way but I will say this; things could really be changing for me from here on out, Mellybean.”
Chuck had used Lilith’s phone to reassure his very worried-sounding wife that he was alive, although he was sparse with the exact details he gave her in between her constant talking.
Lilith had told Chuck to make himself at home while she hastily set about ensuring that her house look like a regular human’s, starting with locking the pantry and scrubbing the residue of that ‘gift’ from the sink.
Now that she knew who this man was, she knew what that cretin thought she would do with him. She wasn’t going to do it, if only to spite the arrogant swine. She would take Chuck to Joe’s bar and she would leave him there. Forget about him.
Forget about the lot of them.
Chuck had showered, dressed and joined Lilith in the kitchen. She heard his cheerful, rambling thoughts long before she heard him opening her fridge.
“I don’t think there’s much in there,” she said, giving the sink a hasty rinse. “If you’re hungry, there’s a café in the village; I can buy you breakfast.”
“I should provide you with breakfast, Lilith. It’s the least I can do. Besides, you have a few things. Garlic, mushrooms…”
“I have garlic and mushrooms?” Lilith asked, surprised.
Caleb must have bought them from the village greengrocer under duress; the owner was always asking him not to loiter there. Lilith was surprised that her brother had found time to buy random groceries in between all of the treachery, slander and archaic binding rituals he’d been carrying out this week.
Lilith joined Chuck at the fridge and peered in to look at the items he was referring to. There was no doubt about it; inside was a handful of wild garlic and a selection of mushrooms that almost looked like they’d been freshly picked…
She scanned the fridge and her insides tied themselves into knots as she immediately recognised the other item in there.
A fleshy, bean-shaped item.
She watched in slow motion as Chuck reached towards it.
“Ooh!” he enthused. “Yes, we can definitely make something with this!”
The sodding, shitting arse!