Only when night left my room in shadow did I feel her settle beside me, alert but feather light, how she always began.
“Piper, wake up. Pip, pip, pip.” Her calls fell in droplets over the same spot of me—again, again, again—a fine-tuned torture process designed with one victim in mind.
I groaned and threw the covers over me like a shield to block out her silken voice and incessant prods. “Really Melanie? Now?” She had more names than one, but I liked Melanie best. It made her seem like any other ordinary person.
Occasionally it was possible for us to engage in civil conversation, when Melanie wasn’t looking to draw blood that is. Otherwise I needed to be careful. She had talons and she knew where my skin was paper-thin.
I was shoved back and forth over and over until finally I sprung out from the doona, glaring at her with what I hoped was a sufficiently venomous glare. I knew that once she decided to stay, it was near impossible to convince her to leave.
“Is Wade working late again?” Melanie asked, her eyes wide and red in the flashing light of my alarm clock. 12:27 a.m. “Still at the cinema?”
I pressed a finger to my phone and the screen lit up. No messages. He mustn’t have finished his shift. “Apparently,” I said.
Wade and I moved in together earlier this year after he progressed from a candy bar kid to a manager who oversaw candy bar kids. He worked at Lilac Cinemas, a little haven for quirky indie flicks with a retro interior alternative enough to match the films they screened. Wade matched too. He was tall and well-read and used words like marvelous and certainly. I always dreaded going to those silent films he loved so much and having to pretend I understood and had something articulate to say afterwards.
Melanie scraped her fingers through her hair. “That’s a few nights in a row, isn’t it?”
She huffed and dissolved back into the bed. “Bloody hell.”
“Settle down.” I grinned into the dark despite myself. “He’s working to pay off our rent, so it’s not like I can complain.”
“Hell yes you can.” She bolted upright and flames danced in her eyes. “Do they even have sessions this late at Lilac?”
I dismissed her with a wave, then rolled away, clutching my doona with stiff hands. I could hear Melanie’s brain whizzing, sifting through facts and texts and conversations. “Is Lorna working?” she went on.
“Melanie. Let me sleep.”
“It’s a harmless question!”
“I don’t know if Lorna’s working, okay?” It had taken all my effort not to ask him before he left. Stifling the flurry of questions inevitable at the mention of any female in Wade’s life felt like trying to swallow a pill that was too large for my throat. I got it down halfway but then it jerked back onto my tongue and I couldn’t help but spit it out, which always led to fiery screaming matches. I would cry, Wade would cry, and then he’d encase me in those bandy arms. You chose to forgive, Piper—he would say. This is our home, not an interrogation room. I knew he was right, but what else was I meant to do with those damn pills?
“Are they good friends? Wade and Lorna?” Melanie was like a fly I never could seem to swat. She buzzed all day long and sometimes I thought I might be free of the sound. Then she would flutter right into my ear as if she’d been waiting under the lobe for the element of surprise.
“I’ve only met her like twice,” I said.
“Is she pretty?”
“I guess, yeah.”
My entire body clenched from the inside. “What shit?”
“Working past midnight with some hot piece of ass? Shit. Remember last time? He was working late then too.”
“Stop. I never said she has a hot ass. And last time doesn’t mean this time.”
“We should go check up on them.”
“What?” I propped myself up on my elbows and rubbed my eyes. “No way.”
“Oh come on, there’s no harm in it.” Melanie was brimming with either excitement or fear, I couldn’t tell, but her voice trembled with whichever it was.
“And what if he sees us?”
“He won’t,” she said. “We’ll just drive by, you know, make sure he isn’t …”
“Banging Lorna?” Melanie laughed as I went to turn the lamp on. “He knows better,” I told her and myself.
“You sure, Pip? We’ve been here before.”
I studied the sharp lines of Melanie’s face. She was striking, but not in any way attractive. Her eyes were dark and expectant and her mouth was agape, showing teeth I’d seen draw blood. Perhaps doing as she said would mean her leaving sooner.
I sprang out of bed and threw on my favourite checkered coat. “This is the last time I’m letting you do this,” I told her.
She observed me from the doorway with a twisted smirk. “Not that coat,” she said. “It looks like a floppy picnic rug.”
I considered myself in the mirror and decided she was right. After rummaging around for less garden-themed attire, I poured myself a glass of water at the kitchen sink, and drank as I stared at a photograph of Wade and I in a silver frame. We were turned in to face each other, beaming and wearing beanies with scarves, Wade’s gloved hand outstretched to wipe snow from my eyelashes. I still remembered the trip well, as you might remember a sad, blissful ignorance preceding some catastrophic event.
That event for us was his overly heartfelt reunion with an ex. The reunion started at dinner, and then led to her hotel room, and then her hotel bed, and then my finding out about it from a text I glimpsed on his phone when he was on the toilet.
We split. Then we got back together because I chose to forgive. You chose it Piper. This is our home, not an interrogation room.
Stone after stone and with no small degree of difficulty, I rebuilt—and so did Wade. My hands became calloused and scarred but for a time I managed to find myself in the centre of quite an impressive fortress. Unluckily, the walls were never too high for Melanie. Her visits were becoming more frequent again and it was impossible to know how she was getting in.
Out the corner of my eye I could see her watching me at the sink. I caught a glint of silver. “What the hell are you doing?”
Mel dug the point of our butcher’s knife into her fingertip. A red bead grew there but she didn’t answer. She was so full of questions herself that I knew better than to ask any of her, so we left in silence.
White lines slunk by the car as we drove, disappearing behind us with all remaining traces of me.
“Empty cinemas,” Melanie mused. “All to themselves. Can you imagine?”
I glanced at her and pressed my lips tightly together. I didn’t want to imagine. But the answer was yes, I could. Melanie knew how to imprint images in my mind of writhing bodies and smiles stretching ways that made me ache to see, even if they weren’t real.
We pulled up outside Lilac Cinema. The lights were dim inside and I couldn’t see anyone at all.
“Maybe they haven’t finished,” suggested Melanie, though I wasn’t sure what she meant by that exactly. My heart propelled itself into an all too familiar frenzy.
“Bastard, you better not have done it again,” Melanie hissed. She coiled around me and pressed her nose to the car window, fogging it over. I watched her for a few minutes—an unforgiving profile and teeth gritted together so hard I could feel the tension in my own jaw.
I thought then that if Melanie was so convinced I had reason for concern, maybe I did. She was right about one thing—we’d been here before.
I drove us around the back to where Wade’s car was still parked amongst half a dozen others. Melanie’s eyes raked the darkness and I saw what they landed on before she even raised her finger to point. Two shapes lingered against the wall of the cinema by the toilets.
“There!” she said. “You little bastard. Red-handed. Not this time. Not this time, you won’t.” Her lips drew back over teeth sharp and grey.
The transformation was so rapid I could never stop her once it had started. She flew from the car and joined the dark, making for Wade and Lorna.
“Melanie! Don’t—” she was too far to hear me. “Shit.” I ran after her, hissing at her to get back. But then I saw the figures move, shift together from the wall. They were two but they were one. Tingles ran from my fingers through to my toes and I stopped and stared.
Visions rushed over me in a wave and almost knocked me off my feet—a shattering of every organ and muscle and nerve in my body, welling hurt, resentment so bitter I could taste it now on my tongue.
Melanie advanced and I saw the butcher’s knife in her grip. Panic froze me. I tried to call out but the words caught in my throat. Questions shot at Wade came easily, orders shot at Melanie were whispers skidding off her back.
The figures broke apart but it was too late. I’d seen them. She’d seen them.
Melanie breathed air into my lungs and then howled, a rabid sound that chilled me through. Then she struck. Straight into organs and muscles and nerves that needed to feel what it was like, that needed to feel an equal pain to understand mine.
A cry resounded, elongated and ghostly, rising up to the night sky and rattling my bones. Lorna screamed and screamed a continuous stream of terror and blind confusion. Wade melted to the ground and his face caught a slice of moonlight, his wide eyes set on the blade buried in his chest. Only—it wasn’t Wade. The eyes were dark and there was a beard and a nose too round to be his. The man’s fingers splayed over the knife.
I stood over him and trembled as Lorna beat at my head, wailing. Melanie was gone and it was just me. Just me and this knife and this manic girl and a man curled around the hate I drove through him.
The cinema door sprung open and my heart bounded into my throat. Wade was still dressed in his black collared shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows. His brow drew to a line when he saw me. Then Lorna. Then he looked down.
It wasn’t me—I wanted to say. It was Melanie. I forgave you. She didn’t. She couldn’t. Blame her. Find her. But where would he look? She had stitched herself to my shadow, dissipating once again into the darkest space of me. Was she me or was I her?
I felt myself shaken and soon I heard sirens and saw flashing lights, but I was alone. My hands, speckled red, held on tight to one another. They were the same hands that spent those years rebuilding, the same hands that caressed him even when they wanted his throat. They were red but they were mine. They were all I had.
'Red-Handed is a dark, reflective take on the dangerous consequences of disloyalty. This isn't romanticized in any sense, as I believe that when these things are revealed in full force, there is nothing attractive or appealing about them.
Jealousy and resentment can be ugly, and Melanie is an embodiment of both in the piece, dragging Piper from curiosity through to rising panic and ultimate insanity.
Anxiety at its worst permeates the mind with a voice of its own. This is an inner dialogue I intended to represent by drawing one character out into two, observing how each voice battles with gnawing aches and suspicions. The crushing reality of situations such as these is too often ignored; the injustice of the intrusive voice and consequences of its sound. I hope to have brought you an exploration of this complex duality of emotion when it rears its head through broken trust.'