SARAH PLAYED WITH her puppet.
He danced, moved subtle, life-like. His limbs hung from his wooden body, swaying and disjointed, twitching to the ripples of Sarah’s hand. Sometimes the strings became tangled, wrapped around his limbs and neck, choking him with little worn threads. Sometimes Sarah left him like that. His eyes were blank: not happy, not sad, but empty – empty, dead eyes, staring at Sarah.
She stopped playing.
She stood and walked to the window. The outside looked cold, harsh. She rarely went there, because her tummy always hurt and mummy said it wasn’t good for her, so she stayed inside most days. The trees bent to the wind, swayed and thrashed. She tried to concentrate, look at the branches, but she felt him behind her. She heard his voice.
She turned and looked at the puppet.
He never used to be like this. He never used to make her feel bad. He used to be her friend. See, Derek said things to Sarah: Things she didn’t understand; things she shouldn’t understand; things that made her shake and sweat and run for mummy. Derek scared her. She stopped playing with him at first, but he always came back, speaking, spitting. He scratched poison in her head: Said nasty words, fuck, and wouldn’t stop, you, or leave her alone, bitch.
Sarah looked away. Her belly spoke – growled and ate her insides, so she ran out her room, leaving Derek tangled on the floor, and walked down the high stairs and into the kitchen. Steam poured from the door like a spectre, jumping out, dissipating into the air. Her mum and dad stood around; her father, Tom, saw her and smiled.
“I’m hungry, daddy,” Sarah said.
“Mum’s just put dinner on now,” he replied, picking her up. “And what have you been up to today?”
“Playing with Derek.”
Tom and Jane looked at each other, and a silence filled the room, words caught in their throats. Tom put her down.
“Sarah, why do you call him that?” Jane asked, bending down in front of her daughter. She held her arms, squeezing them as if it would give her a better answer, as if the answer would be any different from the countless before. “Derek? Where did you get that name?”
“Derek told me it.”
Her face went stiff and her eyes went wide, but she sighed, tired, and turned away. She stirred the pot, stern and frustrated, watching the carrots and the peas twirl around and around in the boiling pot.
“What is it?”
“Nothing, darling,” Jane said. “Sit down for dinner.”
Sarah sat. Jane poured the soup – potato, carrot, and pea. Sarah didn’t like carrot; it was all soft and squidgy in her mouth, but mummy only made her eat some before she could leave the rest, so she didn’t complain. The steamy ghost floated from her bowl now, escaping, fading. Sarah ate. The liquid heated her insides, twirled in her belly with acid. She finished, thanked her parents, and wandered to her room, up the high stairs, through the lonely house.
She stopped outside her door. A force of fear pushed her, stopped her going in. It made her heart beat and her body hot because, through the wall, she heard the whisper. She heard his rolling, stabbing voice, floating like the steam. She felt his wooden stare looking, waiting through the wall. She walked in. Derek lay on the bed. The voice: it was there, but it wasn’t. It lingered in her head like it sat in her ear. Speaking. Spitting. Sarah.
Her other toys didn’t talk to her. When she made school, her other classmates didn’t talk to her either. She had Derek for as long as she could remember, and for as long as she could remember, Derek had her.
She put her face in the pillow, closing her eyes, covering her ears with the blanket. Darkness hazed her, faded consciousness. The black turned into colour – images flashing, flickering in her young mind.
Derek hung. He cried, wooden tears running down his wooden face. The anger, the memories, the violence pumped through his wooden heart – his head all twitched, his mind all dark, but in the blur, everything became clear. Derek broke.
Sarah played outside today. She left Derek inside so he wasn’t so loud, but she still heard. Playing with Derek usually quietened him, but when she left, he usually screeched louder. Angrier. It didn’t matter though; she was used to it.
She ran around and around the cold garden, jumping on stones and over plants, the wind hitting her face. The clouds filtered the garden grey, turned the world dreary and glum and made Sarah sad, but she kept running and singing anyway.
“Ring-a-Ring o’Rosies,” she skipped. “A Pocket full of Posies, a-tishoo, a-tishoo, and we all fall down.”
And so she fell. She lay tired and dizzy – her legs shaky, her head hazy. Her belly hurt, bloated up inside, so she kept lying on the grass. The world turned different lying on her back – looked different, felt different. Her mind softened, her blood and face dripped, the world pulling them back. She melted into the ground.
Sarah lay for many minutes, and for the first time in a long while, listened to the outside instead of the inside – listened to the world instead of herself. She heard squeaking from the tree: Small tweets, screeches, many and painful. She looked up, searching, and saw a clump of twigs together between the branches. She sat silent for a minute, listening to the life out of her view. She wanted to see. She wanted to see their eyes and their feet and their feathers. The nest hung low enough. She just had to climb on the bench, in the break, and shuffle along a little, and so she climbed, careful and slow. She looked inside the bowl of sticks.
Three sat in the nest. They looked up, hearing, but they could not see. Little balls of life: ugly and naked, screeching and crying. Sarah had never seen baby birds before. They didn’t look like the drawings or the cartoons: Their eyes glued closed, grey and ugly, and no feet, just thin stumps, and no feathers, just red bodies like the chickens mummy puts in the oven. She stood for a while, watching, fascinated. She watched until her legs tired, and her tummy hurt, and her mind turned all blurred.
The voice flickered inside her. It made her dizzy. She swayed, twitched, her mind hazing. The world turned around her, and in the haze, the confusion, the anger, she fell on the nest. It toppled over; it slipped through. She crouched, holding the trunk, and looked down.
The little birds. They twitched, cried, squealing on the ground. Their bodies lay messy, broken. One didn’t move at all.
Like the birds, she didn’t understand.
“What happened with the birds, Sarah?”
Sarah sat on the sofa, alone, the seat too big for her. With her eyes red, her lips quivering, she felt popped – her chest and throat empty and hurting. She couldn’t answer – she didn’t know. She cried again.
“You wanted to see them?” Jane asked.
Sobbing, Sarah nodded.
“And it fell and you were scared?”
Jane took her daughter and hugged her. “It’s okay. It was just an accident, dear.” She stroked her hair.
Sarah hugged her mother. The screeching echoed in her mind, the images, she tried to forget, but the voice remained. “Derek.”
Jane pulled away. “What?”
“Derek, mummy – he spoke when it happened.”
“No.” Her eyes turned hard again. Her voice spat. “No, he didn’t.”
Tom stopped his wife, took her hand, and whispered something Sarah couldn’t hear. Jane sighed and pushed her away.
“Sarah-“ her father said. “You calling your doll Derek.
“Derek was your brother.”
Sarah sat up.
“Well, your foster brother. We adopted him when he was thirteen – about a year before you were born. He stayed with us for a while, but then left – moved on while you were still very young. You don’t remember him, do you?”
Sarah didn’t remember any boy, any brother. She only remembered Derek.
“What’s adopted?” she asked.
“When two people take a child and make them their son. To look after them. A child who doesn’t have parents anymore.”
Sarah wasn’t sure she understood. “What happened to Derek’s parents?”
“They- they hurt him, sweetie. So he was taken away.” They sat silent for a few seconds. “So you can see why that would upset mummy? Calling your puppet Derek?”
Sarah nodded. She thought of his words, his dangling limbs, his staring face. They burned vivid in her mind.
“Mummy,” she said. “Where is Derek now?”
Jane looked away. For a moment, she stared into nothing, eyes vacant, before remembering to answer. “Derek had problems, sweetie. He’s gone now.”
Sarah still wasn’t sure she understood. She wasn’t even sure what there was to understand. It made her feel shaky, dirty, like her place in the world, like the world itself, changed a little. She hugged her mother, put her head on her breast, and tried to forget about the birds.
“Mummy says I shouldn’t speak to you anymore,” Sarah said, dangling Derek in front of her. “She says you’re not there.” She felt his handle, his strings, his wooden head, his voice. “Of course you’re here.”
She kept playing, mumbling her thoughts. “She also said you were my brother. Are you my brother? I’ve never had a brother before. Although you’re a bit mean for a brother. Does this mean you’ll be nice to me now?”
She whispered to herself, innocent, playful, but the word, the name, slipped from her tongue.
Her mother walked in. She stood and stared for a moment. “Are you still playing with that doll?”
Sarah looked at Derek, mouth open, unsure what to say.
“I thought your father and I told you to stop. Stop calling it Derek.”
Sarah’s heart beat. Anger thrashed in her mother’s voice. She looked different – taken back a few years, under slept and stressed, angry but, most of all, scared. Black bags carved under her eyes, her face thin, hollow. Her body towered Sarah’s.
“But that’s his name, mummy.”
“No. No. I told you to stop.” She grabbed her wrist, squeezing it, twisting it back. “Stop calling it Derek. Derek isn’t here. Derek’s gone.”
Sarah cried. Sarah screamed. The voice, it burned – shouted louder and louder and sent Sarah into the haze. Her teeth fell into her mother’s wrist and then her fingers and then her shoulder and then her ankle. Jane screamed now.
Her father ran in the room and held Sarah down, kicking and screaming, a demon in her throat, in her eyes, thrashing inside their daughter. She jerked, her arms pulled upwards, dangling in the air. He held her until she stopped.
Later that night, Sarah lay in bed. She heard the muffled shouts of her mother and father, spitting, swearing, crying. Her arm hurt. Mummy spitting scared her more than Derek. Mummy was big; Mummy could hurt her; Mummy did hurt her, so she hurt her back.
But Sarah wasn’t quite sure what happened. She tried to stop thinking about it. She turned on her side, and through the darkness, saw the lining of a figure, the silhouette of her puppet. Her only friend. Her brother.
Derek stopped speaking for a while. He just lay there: dead. Sarah had grown so used to his presence that his absence somehow discomforted her. She sung and she laughed and she played without bother, but his void made her room – made her – awkward. Empty.
She wondered where he had gone, wondered if he would come back. At first she supposed it was nice, but then she wasn’t so sure. In a way, she missed him. Her belly worsened recently, so she missed more school and spent more days alone, playing, reading, sleeping
Blackness covered her, but her eyes adjusted, carved lines through the dark. Something wet and warm and sticky clung to her inner legs. She must have wet herself. She looked around her room.
Derek. Gone. The puppet – it didn’t sit on the desk. She wanted to look, but she just lay in bed, a force of fear stopping her moving. Pushing her down. Shadows cast on the wall, touching, warping along beside her; twisted fingers scratched at the surface. She lay frozen in her filth for an hour, couldn’t sleep, but couldn’t move either.
She wanted Derek. She wondered where he had gone: If he was under the bed, if he moved, if he ran away.
Then she heard.
She climbed out her bed and out her room, in the hall, following the noise.
It grew louder and louder and louder. Tiredness turned her head hazier than ever – like a dream – lucid and wild.
Come come come come. She shuffled through the darkness, Sarah, except the voice didn’t sit in her head. It came from somewhere above, vivid and warm. It didn’t spit – it didn’t scare her – it whispered through the ceiling, kind and gentle.
Sarah walked through the hall, around the corner, to the entrance of the attic. The ladder lay open: Mummy must have left it down. Maybe she stole Derek and put him up there. Yes, she must have that cunt. Derek always said that’s what mummy was – mean, nasty, someone who would hurt her – but she never believed him until what happened. She held onto the steps, climbed up, each hurting her feet.
She reached the top. The smell hit her, musk and dust, old and nasty. It ran up her nostrils, through nerves, and into her brain: made her dizzy and her belly hurt again.
The voice spoke louder. She heard it come from the other end, somewhere between boxes. She walked over and, looking through, opening and moving, came to one box, small and nice. Wooden with a latch. She opened it.
Derek lay inside. He stared at Sarah – the strings wrapped around his neck – his eyes wider than ever. He looked old, dust and cobwebs clung to him like he lay there for years, but Sarah knew she had seen him yesterday. Beside him, his wooden face, sat a note. She picked it up:
G o 0 d b ye
The letters sat scrambled, drunken on the page. Sarah only recognised a few. She didn’t know the first part, but knew the second: B Y E. It’s what you say when you leave someone – when you go away. But where would Derek be going?
A photo lay next to the note. On it, a grey boy: A grey boy in a grey room with two grey, staring eyes, not happy, not sad, just empty. Sarah recognised the room – he sat on the same chair she did the day the accident happened. The same chair, years in the past, with a different body. It made her shiver.
They don’t love you.
They don’t love you, Sarah. They hate you like they hated me. They don’t want us to be friends. They’re why you don’t have a brother.
Derek spoke to her. Not just fragments, nasty and spitting, but really spoke. Not just in her head, but there, coming from the puppet. Not only did Derek speak to Sarah, but Sarah listened to what Derek said. She sat in the darkness, alone, talking to him, the conversation more vivid and vibrant than ever before. Friends. It was like a sleepover, but instead of hiding under a dark duvet, she hid in a rotting attic, and instead of whispering to a real girl, she whispered to a rotting puppet. Not everything Derek said was bad, made her unhappy, but he twisted around subjects, easy and hard, and sometimes even listened to her. He became more alive than ever before and, for a moment, on his carved, wooden face, Sarah thought she could see him smile.
Derek told her what age he was – fourteen then, he said, nineteen now. Mummy said he went years ago, but Derek said he never left. Never left the attic or the house or her parent’s minds. He said many things. He kept saying many things, and after a while, whispered something quiet.
“What’s that, Derek?” Sarah asked. Derek told her this one last thing – told her to do this one last thing. “I don’t want to,” Sarah said, but Derek promised her: promised her if she did, he would always be nice again; promised her if she did, he would stop saying the bad words; promised her everything would be alright.
So tired, so hazed, her actions didn’t feel real. She climbed the boxes just like she climbed the tree. “Up here?” she asked the emptiness. “Just a. Just for a minute.” A cable, wrapped up, hung from the roof. She put her neck in it. “Okay. Here you go, Derek.”
Her belly hurt. The haze hit her one last time. She fell and the cable tightened around. The boxes toppled. She hung from the cable, limbs dangling, twisted, chocked. She would be a puppet. Just like Derek. She knew that’s what he wanted now.
The cable clung around her neck and her limbs dangled and jerked, and in the struggle, she swayed back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, eyes wide and forever staring.
Jane looked over her daughter’s body: So still, so pretty. This was her first night home after hospital. She slept.
Jane sat down on the bed, still, thinking, waiting for Sarah to wake. A question hung on her. She looked everywhere after it happened, but she couldn’t find that puppet. She knew there was something wrong with it. That fucking doll. Derek. Derek. Derek. That’s all she fucking heard. It wasn’t in her room, it wasn’t in the attic, it wasn’t in the house. It burned on her heart, frightened her. The fireplace went in the corner, and she tried to watch it, distract herself, but she couldn’t, the thought carving in her mind. After a while, Sarah moved.
She roused, opened her eyes, but made little other movement.
“How are you?”
Sarah didn’t answer. Jane saw how different she was. How cold she was. She didn’t act like a six year old should. Her eyes, no child’s love: not happy, not sad, just empty.
“Where’s the puppet, Sarah?”
“He’s right here, mummy,” but Sarah didn’t point to anything or hold anything out. She just stared at Jane, and Jane stared back.
Sarah turned away, looking at the fire, a little pain on her face.
Jane checked the drawers, the wardrobe, the boxes, the floor, the curtains, everywhere, before she looked under the bed. Derek. He stared with his blank face. Jane reached her hand out into the darkness, her heart shaking, scared as if the doll was going to grab her, bite her, pull her underneath. She ripped it out.
The puppet frightened mummy now too. Jane never believed it until, on that night, she found Sarah like she found him. Like those years ago.
She took the doll and dangled him in front of her.
“You found him,” Sarah said. “He said you were looking.”
Jane froze. Even her daughter frightened her now.
Derek hung with the same lifeless limbs – the same dead stare. She didn’t understand it either. She hated it – its name, its stare, its dead, long limbs – just like she hated the child those years ago. She threw him in the fire.
The flames ate the wood.
Sarah watched. “You can burn the body, but you can’t burn him, mummy,” she said. Through the flames, the haze, she saw a smile on his blackening face. “You can burn the body, but you can’t burn him.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ross Muir is a freelance writer who mainly engages with short stories and poetry, currently studying for his M.A. in English Literature and Philosophy.