by Charlie Willis
Her Uncle Ronnie had found them. He came to their front door on that rainy winter’s evening cradling a bundle of ragged clothes. They were in the other room watching television when they heard the knock echo out into the hall. Her mother groaned, and summoned just enough energy to lift up her hand up from where it was hanging off the sofa and wave it at Sophie. Sophie struggled out of her nest of blankets and went out into the hall.
It was dark because they were only allowed the lights on in one room at a time. But the streetlights glared brazenly in the rain outside and threw uncle Ronnie’s bulbous shadow onto the floor of the hall. Sophie had known it was him from the knock. She hung back in the darkness for a moment. He knocked again.
‘Let him in,’ her mother’s weak voice came from the other room.
She heard, in some distant corner of her mind, a whisper of a thought that suggested that she could just ignore her mother and keep the door closed. Those sorts of thoughts had only come into being since her eleventh birthday last month, but, at this time, she was not yet ready to listen to them properly, let alone act on them. Her mother’s will was still an unshakeable truth, and Uncle Ronnie’s entrance into their dark little home was as certain as the setting of the sun.
‘Hello, my little lady,’ Ronnie said when she’d pulled the door away from him. The cold, damp smell of the wet world pushed its way into their hall. He stepped inside heavily, his boots squeaking on the floorboards. A rag from the bundle of clothes came loose and fell down by Sophie’s feet. She could hear his wheezy breathing over the hissing of the rain on the pavement outside.
‘I’ve got you a present,’ he croaked as Sophie closed the door behind him. She felt a twinge of dread made itself felt in her stomach.
‘Hello Ronnie,’ her mother’s voice floated through to the hall again, and Ronnie lolloped through to the lounge, leaving heavy prints of mud and rainwater in his stead.
The light from the lamp on the floor was yellow and thin and seemed eerily still against the flickering white light from the television. Her mother had forced herself upright in her sofa bed, and her pale hands were entwined together on her lap.
Her new position gave gravity a fresh opportunity to morph her features. Her forehead seemed to droop and press down on the arch of her eyebrows, pushing them down at the outer edges and forcing thus pushing her features further into the centre of her face. Her black eyes had sunk entirely into the depths of their sockets, leaving empty holes like cave mouths above the sharp ridge of the cheekbones. Fluid collected at the bottom of the creased skin that hung beneath the cheekbones and so her face seemed to be slowly slipping off her skull. Her mouth, downturned of course, was almost completely invisible and that, Sophie thought, was what made it so hard to hear her voice.
‘Oh my love, look at you,’ said Ronnie. He knelt down beside her, his leather jacket creaking.
‘I’m not well, Ron,’ said Sophie’s mother sighed, and she sighed and as her thin shoulders rose up and fell down again, she winced.
‘Well I’ve got your Sophie a present,’ he said, and he turned to Sophie to holdand held out the bundle of rags. She reached out and moved the various layers of the bundle aside. The bundle had a musty, lively scent. Then Sshe heard a whimper coming from its the core, of the bundle and Ron hurried her along.
‘Come on, come on, you daft girl,’ he said, letting out the smell of old cigarette smoke. The bundle at last fell apart in Ronnie’s arms and it took Sophie a moment to make sense of the writhing knot that was revealed to her.
‘Kittens,’ said Ronnie, and he grinned. There were three of them, their little pink, pulsing bodies wrapped and twisted together. The whimpering and soft mewling grew louder as Sophie touched their soft, warm skin with her forefinger.