ATONEMENT • by Y. Y. Browne

The clouds broke just before her car turned on Seppatin Drive.

The Association had forbidden artificial light on the outer property, at the gates to the outside world. So, to the boy in the high window, the car seemed like a lion, blind and silent, coursing through the night toward the sole source of light, coming from the porch below.

***

“Claudia,” his uncle greeted the woman that was his mother. “Don’t be formal. You’re home after all, come in.”

The boy remained in shadow, under the stairs. He smelled the woman before he saw her.

“Claude. You’ve been well,” she said, not giving Uncle time to answer. “Where’s the child?”

“Sleeping,” Uncle lied. “Leave him for tomorrow. I’ve given you the Spades Room.” He pointed up the stairs.

The boy backed deeper into shadow, but she saw him. She grinned, tugging off her rouge leather gloves, one finger at a time.

“Of course,” his stranger mother said, heading upstairs.

She left her bags by the door for Uncle to fetch.

***

It was past midnight when he smelled her again, her thick, grassy perfume.

The boy rose from bed to spy on her. His mother was in the corridor below, nowhere near her own room. She was standing outside the Hearts Room with her forehead pressed to the door, whispering into the wood and weeping.

The door of Hearts was locked. Only Uncle ever entered the place. The boy was sure she was wasting her time. But then he heard unfamiliar sounds, loud enough to make the floorboards judder — a resounding thud and the drawing-back of a long deadbolt. His mother sighed, and he imagined she smiled. He snuck to the bannister and craned to see more. Just then she slung back her head and saw him. Her smile vanished, replaced by a savage stare that matched the feral flood of light from the now-opened Hearts. Mother roared, “GET BACK TO YOUR ROOM!”

So, he ran.

***

“Toast?” his mother asked, kindly, next morning.

He waited.

“Here,” she tapped the chair next to hers. “Coffee? I’ll make it sweet.”

She rested her hand over his. Her skin was ghastly white, like that of Uncle and everyone else who lived on Seppatin. It smothered his own dark fist.

Her pale grey eyes locked onto his deep brown.

“You’re your father’s son,” she whispered, then said nothing more while they ate.

***

“It’s electric!” she shouted downstairs, still harbouring the boy’s hand, leading the way to Uncle, who stood by the car.

“Didn’t you notice its silence?” she asked her brother.

“Did I not notice an absence?” he said smugly.

“Quite,” she replied.

“Park it by the garages, Claudia,” he said, before turning to the child. “Young man, with me.”

“No,” Mother interrupted. “He can help me with the car.”

She yanked the boy forward, before her brother could object.

Uncle shrugged and returned to the house.

Mother went to the passenger door and sent the boy driverside. He peered furtively around.

“No one to catch us,” she said, and winked. He hopped in.

“It’s just an overgrown go-kart,” she confessed. “Press down, it goes. Let up, it stops. Even a child…” she teased, touching his nose. “Now, you go.”

So, he went, steering wobbly toward the squat outbuildings.

***

“Oh, my, my, Claude and Claudia! How we’ve longed to see you together again,” said the twisted-toothed woman of the Association. She hoisted the blood-red cocktail the boy offered her and pressed it to her flat, blue lips. She gave him a nod and crossed the vestibule to speak with another elderly creature in black tie.

 Long into the night, the boy slipped among the adults, unspoken-to, offering drink after drink, taking coats and cloaks, as more and more grown-ups flocked in. Each new arrival was more worn down than the last, their body parts unhealed. They wore braces, leaned on crutches, had cuts to their necks, marks on their arms, slashes across their brows. Mother and Uncle — the only ones still whole — were thronged and jostled by the mangled congregation. Then someone clanged a fork against a glass and drew everyone’s attention to the clock, and then to the boy, who froze under their collective gaze.

On the landing above, the door to the Hearts Room opened. Two long arms of burnt-brown light swept forth and embraced the scene below.

“It’s time,” someone gasped.

The decrepit herd filed upstairs, with Uncle leading the way.

Mother trailed at the back, a firm grip on the boy’s shoulders. She let the gap between themselves and the others widen, then whipped him around and whispered madly, “Outside! Now!”

***

They fled through the darkness to the car, and Mother shoved her son behind the wheel. She reached over and flicked several switches but did not get in.

“Press down, go, don’t stop. Your father’s people are waiting for you. No lights until you’re outside the gates, remember.”

“Mother…” The boy’s eyes widened and stared fixedly beyond her, to the gathering of a rusted haze.

She cupped his face, unheeding. “I never should have left you. I know now that — NO!!”

Uncle had leapt from the red mist wielding a silver machete. He slashed at his sister’s back, until the weapon was slick with her blood. She whipped round and rolled to the ground, tore at her brother’s ankles and dragged him to the dirt.

“Go!”

The boy slammed the pedal and gunned the car down Seppatin Drive.

He approached the perimeter and exhaled.

He saw the sunrise and seven backlit figures poised just beyond the gates.

He smiled, and then…

He fumbled — a rogue, sweaty finger did just what Mother warned not to do — it pressed an ill-placed button and headlamps flooded the path before him.

The ground beneath him bucked and rose, upending the car, living tarmac clamped the tyres, and the silhouettes along the horizon were lost to him, as he was hurled back into the heart of the burnt-brown light.


Y. Y. Browne lives in England. She has been a poet, a script reader, a screenwriter, a critic, a teacher, a massage therapist, a yoga teacher, a singer, a ghost-hunter, and an erstwhile chicken farmer. Her work has appeared in Obsessed With Pipework, FRiGG, Poetry Monthly, Weyfarers, Blast, Autumn Sky and Peeking Cat Poetry.


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