As Anthony entered his cavernous childhood home in the suburbs of North London, he tripped past dingy portraits of Hungarian royalty – family heirlooms caked in dust – stacks of old newspapers faded by the sun and rat poison heaped in ashtrays. By the stairs was a bucket into which water dripped rhythmically. In the kitchen was his seventeen-year-old sister, Melanie. She had oily skin and unruly hair that covered her face as she spun in her nightgown like a whirling dervish to the sound of the TV blasting RnB.
When Melanie heard her brother step in, she came to an abrupt halt. She peered through the dark hall as if staring down a well for a lost coin. Her face fell. She collapsed back into a chair at the dining table, crossed her legs, inspected the bunion on her little toe and then arched her foot like a ballerina.
“Can I turn this off?” Anthony said, the shrill music and revolving visuals fraying his nerves.
Melanie shrugged and then gave him a stare that could stop traffic. “What is it that you want?” she said, emphasising every word.
“I just came for my books,” he lied, but only partly.
“Well, get them and go, this is my place and you’re not welcome.”
“I’m a member of this family too.”
“I want your key. And let’s get things straight you’re nobody and you’re infringing on my rights.” Melanie seethed.
The reality was somewhat different. After their parents died both children were to sell the property and be allocated their share of the money. But Melanie was an uncontrollable force, somehow commandeering the house, trashing it, and making it unsaleable. So, she was left to her own devices, claiming benefits, dancing through the halls as she pleased while bed bugs laid eggs in the dry rot in every chaotic room.
In his bedroom, Anthony inspected each bulging bookcase and he took his time picking out one weathered tome after another, thumbing through them as memories of passages fluttered through his mind. He was reminded of Parisian skylines on family holidays and schoolboy obsessions with various girls. They all seemed so distant now.
He pulled out an old hardback edition of The Hobbit and felt the grooves of the cover, then he fingered the gold-leafed pages. As little children Melanie would snuggle up with him under the covers, and with only the light of a torch Anthony would read The Hobbit from cover to cover. Melanie would shield her eyes at the descriptions of the dragon – her toes wriggling with fear. Anthony would laugh and press the torch beneath his chin, creating a dense silhouette through the sheets onto the ceiling.
Anthony bagged up as many books as he could carry and lugged them down the stairs as Melanie waited for him by the front door, a shawl wrapped around her head and draped over her shoulders.
“Can’t we talk, Melanie?” said Anthony.
“Absolutely not, you’ve got your books, it’s time you left.”
So, Anthony did as he was told. Melanie’s stern voice reminded him of their mother, and he knew she couldn’t be reasoned with.
As the door slammed behind him Anthony had to face another night on the street with no food, no money. He felt Melanie’s eyes on him, squinting through the net curtain, muttering to herself.
Anthony waited in the local park for it to get dark and then he returned to the house. He stowed his books down the side alley by the gutter and clambered over the back gate, narrowly evading the barbed wire. That night he slept in the shed, lying on clods of dried earth with the smell of stale grass. A spade balanced precariously over his head and spiders’ webs stretched out from every angle.
Just as he began to doze off dawn broke – a shimmering sun swallowed by a watery blue sky. Music blared from the kitchen and Anthony felt this was the right time to confront Melanie.
He knocked on the kitchen window, startling Melanie who had cleared the table and the chairs in the centre of the room allowing her space to jerk and drag her body in time to an AC/DC song. She turned to face Anthony and then slumped with disdain. She unlocked the back door and said, “You better have a bloody good reason.”
“Look Melanie, I didn’t really come about the books. I have nowhere to go.”
“What is this? You come in here unannounced, disturbing my way of life.”
“Way of life? I just want you to be reasonable, please.”
“How can I dance with you here? You want to stop me from dancing, stop me from being totally free?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I want you to leave, now,” Melanie said, holding a finger up to Anthony’s nose.
“You need help, Melanie. All this dancing and you’re living in junk. This has to end.”
“I knew it, you want to stop my dancing then kill me.”
“Oh god, Melanie, listen to yourself. Look, just let me stay for a while, can’t you? I won’t get in your way, I promise. We can work things out. Let’s be friends again.”
She stared into space, over Anthony’s shoulder. Then her expression softened, and the energy seemed to drain out of her. She said, almost wistfully, “You can stay the night, in your old room. But that’s all.”
Anthony beamed and leaned forward to hug Melanie, but she ducked out of reach.
“I’ll make breakfast,” she said.
“Oh, great. I’m famished.”
“Take a seat next door and I’ll bring it to you.”
“Thank you Melanie, you have no idea how much this means to me, I haven’t had a proper meal in days.”
In the living room, Anthony flopped onto the couch, the springs groaned, and billows of dust puffed out, creating a hazy atmosphere. Anthony could just about see his sister through the hall, ferreting away in the kitchen. He noticed her bones jutting out of her T-shirt, all knees, hips, and collarbones.
Eventually Melanie padded into the lounge, carrying a tray with two bowls balanced on top. She set the tray down on the coffee table in the centre of the room.
“Help yourself,” she said, taking a seat, cradling a bowl in her palms.
Anthony picked up a dish and inspected the contents. Inside was some dirty dishwater with an assortment of dry tree leaves and shrivelled up roots.
“What’s this?” said Anthony, his upper lip curling in disgust.
“Soup,” said Melanie, matter-of-factly, spooning some into her mouth. “Don’t you like it? It’s mum’s recipe, remember?”
“No, I don’t,” he said, placing the bowl to one side.
“I don’t really think she gave a shit about us.”
“I agree,” Anthony said, “especially if she fed us food like this.”
“Ha,” she said, with a serious expression. “Anyway, I’m going to wash up and then I’m off to bed.”
“Bed? It’s noon, Melanie.”
“If I slept at night who would protect the house from the robbers?”
“Robbers, right, of course,” Anthony said.
His sister plonked her bowl on the tray and then swept out of the room. She had finished her soup.
An hour later, Anthony was in his room staring out of the window at a bulbous cloud formation hovering above dirty red brick buildings. Rain was surely near.
He recalled how his parents always treated his relationship with Melanie with suspicion, as if their closeness was a sign of disobedience. Anthony and Melanie would have to sneak into each other’s bedrooms after their mum and dad were asleep so they could play with each other – mainly reading adventure stories deep into the night. After their parents died, both of cancer, one shortly after the other, Melanie and Anthony, almost as tribute to their parents, decided to keep their distance from one another and in the last year they’d barely shared a conversation.
Anthony could hear his sister snoring from the adjoining room, sounding like a bunged up old man, and he couldn’t resist the urge to explore.
He poked his head around Melanie’s door and saw she was covered by a blanket that rose up and down with every breath.
Anthony stepped in to the room, careful not to trip on the scattered clothes, the broken comb, the bent toothbrush, the moth eaten wigs, the used up lipsticks, the nail scissors, the unwound floss, the discarded dumb phones and the wire from the small TV, perched precariously on a foot stool.
The place reeked of goulash after all these years. He could smell it wafting up the stairs – a ghostly presence.
Then he noticed the windowsills. They were lined with books and resting on top of them were reams of potted plants, all of them withered and decayed. There was only one plant still thriving, revelling in the beam of sunlight piercing through a cloud.
Melanie took a large intake of breath and then snorted. She fidgeted in her bed and her blanket slipped off her body, nestling on to the floor. Anthony turned from the window and stepped over bundles of junk to reach Melanie’s bedside. He picked up the blanket and placed it gently over her skinny frame. Up close, Melanie’s hair was thinning and there were pronounced wrinkles lining her face.
As Anthony’s breath grazed his sister’s cheek she shifted back and forth and then her eyes sprung open. It took her a second to assess the situation then she flung the blanket aside and leapt out of bed. She grabbed a pencil from the nightstand and wielded it like a knife.
“Melanie, it’s ok, it me,” said Anthony.
“I know who you are, I know what you want.”
“Oh, Jesus. Ok, what is it? What is it that I want?”
“You want my house, and you’ll do anything to get it.”
“You can take the house, and you can try and kill me if you want, because my life is meaningless. Remember this though, our parents might have left us some property, but we were always a team, and that’s all that ever mattered to me. I’m sorry you don’t feel the same.”
“Go,” she said, “right now.”
Anthony couldn’t argue with her anymore. He just wanted some semblance of a normal life, but he realised this wasn’t possible. His sister’s mind was ensnared by madness and he felt he was slowly losing his grip on reality too.
He went to collect his books outside. As it started to spit with rain, he heaved his possessions along the road – bundles of precious jewels – but with no home to stash them in, no shelves to rest them on, he had to find a new path. Books, books, he thought, I’ll be ok with my books.
He took one last look at his home over his shoulder and saw Melanie staring out of her window, peering inscrutably down at him, while caressing her last living plant like a sleeping bird.
He carried on down the road.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published over sixty times in journals including Able Muse, Bourbon Penn, Intrinsick, Menacing Hedge, Literally Stories, Eunoia Review and The Fiction Pool. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.