The stovetop coffee pot whistled as the early morning seeped between the blinds, casting skeletal shadows across the floor. Toby shuffled into the kitchen stifling a yawn and wiped the remnants of sleep from his eye with the heel of his left hand. Picking up his World’s Best Dad mug he filled it with steaming, black, Nicaraguan gold and tried to hold onto the dream he had the night before. He could make out half remembered images of snarling tigers and thick, choking smoke, but even this fell through his memory like water through his hands. He shook his head and savoured the silence, the early stillness and the warmth of the the day’s first coffee.
A crash and a cry from above his head brought life hurtling back towards him.
Sandy was up and awake.
He sighed, trying to hold onto the precious final moments before the day began.
It was going to be a tough one. He didn’t want to his little girl to go to school. He wanted time to slow down and keep Sandy his precious angel forever.
To stay young and free.
The warmth seeped out of the kitchen as his coffee cooled and the first drops of rain beat a tattoo against the conservatory roof. Toby washed out his cup, fetched a couple of teabags from the cupboard and dropped them in the cracked pot. He filled it with water, letting it brew before walking out of the kitchen toward the stairs that led to the Sandy’s first day of school.
Sandy was sat on the floor with her little brown legs stuck out in front of her. Her dark hair was a mess of tangles and curls and on her feet she wore six inch heels.
Toby stopped and stared at his daughter before bending to pick up discarded clothes and toys from the floor. ‘Sandy,’ he said. ‘What have I said about wearing Mummy’s shoes?’
‘Not to,’ Sandy replied. She wiggled her toes in the shoes and giggled as the light bounced off the red sequins.
‘And yet, little Pumpkin, you seem to have got them on your footsies.’ Toby put his hands under Sandy’s arms and lifted her high into the air. The shoes hit the ground with a soft thump, leaving tiny feet kicking air.
‘Well, if it isn’t my two favourite people in the whole world,’ came a voice from the doorway. ‘I’ve been searching all over for you.’ It sounded as seductive to Toby as it had done when he had first heard it, twelve years ago. He turned, unable to stop the squirming Sandy from crashing to the floor and running to her mother in the doorway. She wrapped a leg in one chubby arm and pulled at the hem of Angie’s dressing gown before jamming a thumb firmly in her mouth.
‘Morning, honey,’ Angie said as she picked Sandy up and perched her expertly on one hip. ‘And good morning to you, handsome.’ She gave Toby a wink and a smile.
‘Morning, babe,’ he said, eyeing her long ebony legs as they flashed from the gap of her gown. ‘Kettle’s boiled. Take her down. I’m gonna jump in the shower. Love you.’
‘Love you too, handsome,’ Angie said as she turned away from the bedroom. Toby could hear mother and daughter discussing breakfast as they made their way into the kitchen.
Toby showered, enjoying the few moments respite from being an adult, a parent, a husband. As the hot water ran over his body, he thought about Angie’s legs and the promise that he hoped he saw behind her smile. He turned up the heat, relishing the thin line between pain and pleasure.
Eventually, and with great difficulty, he stepped out the shower and pulled on his own robe before sitting on the edge of the bed, towelling off his hair. In the floor to ceiling mirror he could see Sandy’s new blazer hung at the top of the stairs.
It seemed hungry.
The way a hangman’s noose might look the day before a hanging. It grabbed old forgotten memories and dragged them screaming into the light.
The exquisite pain of the birch rod.
Unyielding and sadistic tutors.
Wavering images of the crucifix seen through nine year old tears.
But Sandy’s school would be different, he told himself. It couldn’t be like his own school days. Times had changed, moved on.
Sandy would be safe.
Children weren’t beaten anymore. Learning could be fun. School could be fun. And she would be coming home each and every day. She would be fine.
Toby realised that he had been holding his breath, trapping it between the pain of his memories and the thought of letting his baby grow up. He breathed out, tried to relax and push the fear back down to the hidden valleys of his soul. Toby pulled at another breath.
It wouldn’t come. He pulled at it again, could feel his lungs clawing at the air. He tried to relax.
But he couldn’t find the air. He breath became ragged, barely reaching his lungs. Each pull was shorter, filling his screaming lungs less and less. Panic washed over him. He ran a hand up and down his throat and chest, praying for one deep breath.
The air around him moved further away.
The air he needed to breathe still wasn’t there. His heart rate was rising, pounding against an ever constricting chest and yet his lungs remained empty as a promise.
He dove for the bedside table, smashing his toe against an open drawer jutting from beneath his bed.
The pain barely registered.
He gasped and yanked open the bedside drawer looking for the small blue lifesaver he knew would be there.
Should be there.
The longer he looked the less he could breathe. The air didn’t seem to even be reaching his throat. He was suffocating.
His lungs itched and scratched and screamed for air.
Air that wasn’t there.
His hand, shoved at the very back of the drawer closed around an L-shaped object and hope exploded within him. He pulled his hand out, skinning the knuckles as he did so. He shoved the inhaler in his mouth and smashed the canister down twice.
Toby crumpled against the side of the bed, fighting against the pain in his lungs and throat.
He stared at the inhaler as though he had never seen it before. Black spots pulsated before his eyes. Hope had been doused in cold terror, deeper and darker than anything he had ever felt before.
Willing it to work Toby shook the inhaler. Once, twice, three, six, nine, a hundred times or more.
He put it in his mouth and closed his eyes as his finger pushed the canister down.
Cold, life saving air flew from the mouthpiece, relaxing his throat, opening his airways, filling his lungs with beautiful relief. He smiled and pumped the canister another couple of times. Shaking, he pulled himself to his feet, absently wiping his bloody knuckles on his robe. He sat and stared at himself in the mirror keeping his eyes away from the blazer, away from the noose that had grabbed his throat and tried to tighten.
Angie had already fed and dressed Sandy by the time Toby had finished his breakdown in the bedroom. Standing in the kitchen with a second cup of coffee in his hand, the darkness of the sky and the fear of a childhood not quite left behind seemed ridiculous to him now. He had always been blessed with an overwrought sense of morbidity. He put it down to this.
He touched the inhaler in his pocket.
That much had been real.
He shook himself and received a questioning glance from Angie. He smiled, blew her a kiss and made his way around the table. No point in worrying her as well, he told himself.
She’s just as stressed about today as he was. And although she never said it, she was tired of hearing about his nightmare schooldays. “All school was bad, don’t exaggerate yours,” her eyes said when he used to bring up his experiences. Best to let it go and move on. And he had. He thought.
‘Are you ready for your big day, pumpkin?’ he asked Sandy as he knelt beside her chair.
‘No,’ she said, before moving onto her second slice of heavily jammed toast.
‘No. But surely you’re excited? Lots to learn. And when you come home tonight you can show me and Mummy everything you’ve learnt.’
‘Won’t come back,’ Sandy said through a mouthful of toast, spraying crumbs over the table.
Angie shivered. ‘That’s silly talk,’ she said, pulling her dressing gown tighter around her.
Sandy lifted one shoulder and let it drop with a silent finality. ‘Don’t wanna go,’ she said after a moment.
Toby exchanged glances with Angie. Sandy had been looking forward to school for most of the long, dry summer. Only two days ago all three of them had gone into town to finish getting school clothes and Sandy hadn’t been able to keep calm. She had been a vibrating ball of excitement.
‘What’s the matter, Pumpkin? What are you worried about?’ Toby asked as he wiped her sticky fingers with a wet cloth.
Sandy leapt off her chair into Toby’s arms. She buried her face in his woollen jumper so deep he could barely make out her words. He peeled her off him and asked what she had said.
‘The bus. The first bus. I don’t wanna go on the first bus. Drive, please daddy?’
‘There’s only one bus. I can’t drive you, Pumpkin. The bus is the only way to get to school. It’ll be alright. You’ll be with all the other kids. It’ll be an adventure. I promise. You have absolutely nothing to worry about.’
‘Promise?’ asked Sandy, her eyes huge and staring.
‘I promise,’ he said. ‘Nothing bad will happen.’
As he said it, as he promised his daughter that nothing would happen a blackness so deep seized him that he wished he could be back in the bedroom fighting for his life again.
Coldness swept down his spine. With a shaking hand he pulled the inhaler from his pocket and pumped it twice.
‘I promise,’ he said again.
The morning continued to darken and clouds boiled above the street. A huge battleship-grey sky hung low above the street like a voyeur.
Sandy stood in her new outfit. White and red sneakers with the laces tied in two big bows, grey trousers and the white and red blazer. A red raincoat with a white trimmed hood completed the look. In Toby’s eyes she was the most adorable, most precious, most perfect little girl in the world. He smiled as he watched Angie walk Sandy to the curb.
The rain crashed down, turning the lawn into a swamp. Angie turned back to look at Toby, worry creasing her normally unlined features.
Toby smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring way.
It felt more like a grimace.
They heard the bus before they saw it. The deep, low growl of a huge diesel engine. Toby’s hands were clammy, the cold of his body numbing his thoughts. He wanted to shout to Sandy Stay home today, let’s go tomorrow. Stay home with us, you don’t have go.
He stayed silent, fear pulsing through his bones. The bus pulled up in front of the house. It oozed dread. The dark, black, smoke billowing from the tailpipe seemed like a physical manifestation of evil.
A real thing.
A dark thing.
An alive thing.
It’s grill, set below two bulbous yellow eyes, leered and beckoned. It smiled like a tiger smiles. All teeth and malice.
The paintwork sparkled with terrible delight. It dragged the eyes to the base of the bus, the wheels, coated with thick, black rubber. Huge, dark tread.
It shone with malevolence.
Toby clenched his fists till his nails dug deep into his palms. He was being ridiculous. Melodramatic. Letting his imagination run wild. It’s just a school bus. One of the thousands across the state, and yet…
The doors opened with excruciating slowness. Sandy let out a sob. The bus was deathly quiet. The driver – an old, heavyset woman with flaming red hair and dark wrap-around glasses – raised a gloved hand in greeting. She didn’t turn her head to look, just stared out the windscreen. Toby heard Angie mutter something inaudible to Sandy. He saw Sandy nod, and throw her arms around Angie’s neck. She turned and waved to Toby, and he saw her top lip tuck itself in.
She was petrified.
He could barely watch, wanted to grab her, stop her getting on the bus.
Sandy climbed the three steep steps up to the bus, turned and waved, her face a mask of beautiful misery.
The bus lurched away from the curb, and the fear eased into a dull throb. Toby watched the tail-lights as it reached the end of the street, indicate left and then become lost among the houses. Angie joined him on the step. He took her in his arms, and kissed her gently on her temple. Felt her loosen and relax in his arms. He guided her to the door, opened it, and put his hand on the small of her back, ushering her through.
The musical honk of a horn came from behind them. Angie tensed, stiff as rock. Toby turned as he heard the hydraulics of a door swing open.
Against the curb stood a bright yellow school bus, full of wild, laughing children. The bus driver, an old man with kind blue eyes and a full white beard leaned out of the school bus’s open door as the sun blazed through the clouds.
“Mr and Mrs Bowman?” he asked. “Is Sandy ready for school?”
Jack is a third year Creative Student at Bath Spa University. When not writing or studying, Jack spends his time working outside and trying to tame his Norwegian Forest Cat, Albus Dumblepaws. This is his first published story.