We bounced around the back seat as the car wove along the narrow road. I reached for Pedro’s hand and felt him flinch, but I avoided his eyes. Our father was twirling the steering wheel with one hand. “You’ll love it,” he said, smiling in the mirror. “Enormous house. Even an orchard out back.” I shivered. I didn’t want space. I clung to Snoopy dog, let his worn ears cuddle my chin, smelt the cereals I’d dipped him in earlier, the lipstick I tried on him last night. Mum had left it. I found it in my sock drawer.
“She’ll be our stepmother if you marry her,” said Pedro.
What would mum be then? I strangled Snoopy dog in a loving embrace while trying to kick Pedro across the back seat. The seat belt caught my neck. I choked, pushed Snoopy dog deep into my eyes.
“Let’s not rush into things.”
He always said that when he tried to put us off.
“Can we have ice-cream, dad?”
Pedro was easily distracted. I watched his eyes flicker around the car as his fingers gripped the back of our father’s seat.
“Later. After eating.”
“Can we go to the cinema Saturday, dad?”
Pedro’s face knotted in anger. His lips bulged.
“When is mum coming back?”
“We’ll see, son.”
I watched my dad’s face in the mirror for signs that would give me hope. Outside, the wheels hissed in the rain like rattlesnakes in search of prey. I prayed for the brakes to fail, but we slipped into the driveway as if we were on ice. There were no other houses, just this monstrosity straddling our path and not a child in sight, only the whisper of birds, the scuttle of rats. Trees shook, all wet and dripping as the sun hid behind dark, sullen clouds. Snoopy dog cringed tight to my chest. Pedro wouldn’t look at me, his eyes lodged in a computer game.
She wasn’t tall or skinny, just a little ragged. She rushed out, smiled, and fumbled for our hands while her hair bristled like a black cat in a cage. Her nose didn’t look pointed or crooked like a witch’s, but I avoided her eyes as they narrowed in my direction. A whiff of bitter lemon stung the air as she bent closer. I stuffed Snoopy dog into her face in case she wanted a kiss.
She parked us in front of cartoons on the T.V. We pretended to be interested until Pedro knocked over a vase. I watched her reaction for signs, the ones I’d seen in films, reddening cheeks, sharp nails, or a tell-tail shriek. She knew how to hide them. Pedro pretended he didn’t notice the broken glass. Embarrassed, I got up and wandered out into the hall. It was freezing as I stood before the long, dark, heavily framed mirror hanging beside the umbrellas. I heard her coming up behind but couldn’t see her reflection as she called us to the table.
There were no chips, just mashed potatoes. Everyone knows I hate them. “Delicious,” my father said, drinking more wine. I realized he wasn’t driving home. A chill tingled my spine. Pedro was gulping his food because they wouldn’t let him have his phone at the table. The potatoes were turning soggy and salty as I swallowed tears. Mum knew I liked chips.
Dad helped clear the table then sat in front of the football, a new can of beer in his hand. She was smiling again and pushing us down the corridor, out the back door. “The orchard,” she waved. “Have an apple.”
We stared. Pedro shuffled. Damp, chilly air bit my lungs, frosted my eyelids. I couldn’t move.
“Whichever you want,” she said, then laughed. “Except, of course, the one that’s poisonous.”
“Which one?” I heard myself ask, my voice crackling like the falling leaves.
“I’ll leave you to find out.” The smile faded as the door closed. Now we’d lost a father as well.
F. S. Byrne works in education and writes when his teenage kids allow it. He blogs a regular micro flash story. Links to this and over fifty published pieces can be found at efsbyrne.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter @efsbyrne